Ricard Espelt, an expert in platform cooperativism, is a researcher with the DIMMONS (Digital Commons) research group at the UOC’s Internet Interdisciplinary Institute. In light of the health crisis linked to COVID-19, he believes that the public is increasingly questioning the hegemonic agri-food model and is ready to back more sustainable consumer alternatives.
Do you think that the COVID-19 crisis has given us an opportunity to rethink the current food model?
The lockdown has helped us think about and highlight the real nature of our consumer model. Long queues of people wearing face masks to buy food and essential items in supermarkets and the organization of small producers on the internet are two phenomena that offer a very good illustration of the real nature of the current food model.
On the one hand, the large commercial chains have had every assistance in distributing their products, while on the other, the small producers have come up against a lot of difficulties in managing their usual distribution. For a few days, even access to allotments was banned, which meant that people who were self-sufficient or small producers suffered serious discrimination in terms of getting to their own products. Despite that, and thanks to the complaints by the organic food movement, they finally managed to get the measure withdrawn.
Alongside this, some consumers have discovered local producers during the lockdown and have changed some of their consumer habits. Although this fact is relevant, it needs the support of more structural measures to promote effective change and rethink the food model, which is where public policies come into play.
The way I see it, it’s not possible to promote food consumption based on food sovereignty without creating filters that reduce the impact of the present dominant model. As the volume of food consumption is what it is, we need to decide what the origin is. In this sense, initiatives such as Prodeca, a public company run by the Catalan Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries and Food, are always good news. It recently launched the Aliments de Prop local food campaign, with the aim of enabling contact between consumers and local agri-food producers at this unprecedented time.
What agricultural initiatives are in place during the lockdown to organize and increase food sovereignty?
The lockdown has led to local producers having to organize themselves to supply their customers. Farmers’ amazing ability to self-manage, primarily in the case organic food producers, is evident in Catalonia with organic food supply initiatives like Abastiment Agroecològic, promoted by the Arran de Terra and Pam a Pam organizations.
Also, the lockdown has provided the opportunity to discuss the need to speed up the transition to local and sustainable systems while putting it into practice at the consumption level itself. At this time of raised awareness, we need to work to favour a change of scale in terms of local consumption.
Is the COVID-19 health crisis making us more critical of the present food model?
A recent survey by the Catalan Consumer Agency noted that local commerce has been strengthened during the months of lockdown and has opened up an opportunity for this sector. In this regard, it also indicates that consumerism after COVID-19 will be more aware and responsible.
In fact, according to figures taken from the survey, 42.3% of Catalans believe that during the lockdown there was an unjustified increase in certain products and services, while 43.3% think that fresh food is the product that rose unjustifiably in price. Similarly, 60.5% of the public tend to think that the COVID-19 crisis will foster more responsible, sustainable and fair consumption as a whole. This is why I think that the public, as always, are ahead of the curve compared to governments and what we need now is a real change of direction in food policies.
The public has increasingly more information about the elements that determine food consumption, not just in relation to its traceability, but also with regard to its healthiness. At the same time, the crises that the food industry has undergone, such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, commonly known as mad cow disease, the rapeseed oil crisis of the 1980s, and more recently involving palm oil, have gradually alerted us to the dangers of the dominant production, distribution and consumption model.
Besides this, the social movements that have sprung up around the organic food movement have also done significant work in raising awareness. In short, we know increasingly more about the food model, which allows us to be more critical.
Are we talking of a global trend towards fairer and more responsible consumerism?
There’s an awareness globally that something needs to be done to change the model. But as I mentioned earlier, local public policies play a decisive role. Every region, every city, has to ensure its sovereignty to decide what consumption model it wants for itself. The Food Policy Pact that Barcelona is a part of is heading in this direction. The city is strongly committed to promoting a new model and will be the World Sustainable Food Capital in 2021. In any event, the road ahead of us is a long one. The interests of the global food industry in maintaining control are many and will hinder any transformation. Public awareness, social movements and public policies are the key instruments.
Do you think that this change in consumption will be sustainable over time?
The lockdown will leave an imprint on some people, who will change their consumer model, but if we want a change of scale, we need the support of public policies. Among other things, because local consumption has to be inclusive. When consuming local products is more economical, the model will have changed.
What changes have there been in food distribution during the pandemic?
A growing, and not always sufficiently valued, trend during the lockdown has been the growth of the internet as a distribution channel. In absolute terms, the data on the impact of the internet may seem modest, but the statistics show that if the evolution doesn’t stop here, digital platforms will very soon be a key channel for food sales.
This is an aspect that the short circuits of commercialization also need to look out for, otherwise food industry capitalism will become a food platform capitalism, and we really don’t want to go down that road.
In any event, the digital platforms also offer organic food cooperativism a space for inter-cooperation that mustn’t be forgotten. The case of the Katuma platform, the local chapter of the Open Food Network, is a key paradigm of how I believe today’s organic food cooperativism should evolve.
Ricard Espelt is a member of the Digital Commons (DIMMONS) research group at the UOC’s Internet Interdisciplinary Institute. He is specialized in Platform Cooperativism and has a long experience in the field of education and arts. Currently, he is involved in several European projects such as DECODE and PLUS.