Sketches of food, agriculture, gardening and sustainability in the times of Covid-19 // Jan Vávra

When I noticed the Times of Covid-19 call for papers, I did not immediately link it to my on-going research on gardening, food and agriculture, but to my personal experience. When we disregard the urgent health risk, the long term economic risk of the Covid-19 pandemic and the potential social anomie caused by the pandemic suppression measures, there is a massive difference in how people experience the present situation in terms of time. While being single or living with a partner without children, one may use the limited opportunities of spending free time outside to watch movies, listen to music, read books, volunteer or just sleep more. How different is the use and perception of time if you consider someone that has one, two, three or more children at home, taking care of them, teaching them while still having one’s own duties in full-time online home office. This is the common situations for most academics, including the author of this essay. “Normal” structures of time typical of working days and weekends might easily change into a blurred never-ending period of working in short blocks or at night, while also doing this during the weekends to catch up on at least some deadlines. An academic, whose name I unfortunately forgot, wrote a statement on Twitter that nicely captures this situation “flattening the curve also means lowering the bar” to argue that no one can expect a full workload effort in the current situation. I fully agree and hope that all colleagues treat students as such, though I am afraid that reviewers of papers and grant proposal evaluators will not share this perspective.

As food shopping and meal preparation demand quite a lot of time, in situations where time is precious or even scarce, some perspectives might change. In recent years the popularity of local and organic food, alternative food networks, slow food movements, preparing one’s own meal from raw ingredients or a general “quality turn” has been increasing as well as the critical perspective of single use plastics, packaging, prefab or frozen food, fast food, etc. How quickly this is able to change is evident: plastic and packaging are now our “best friends” due to rising hygiene standards and the fact is that prefab or frozen food may be viewed as a precious time saving gift by many working parents trying to balance their work, home, children’s education while keeping at least a bit of sanity.

In a wider perspective of food systems and agriculture, the rhythm of nature is now encountering a slowed down rhythm of society and economy which in many countries relies on the free movement of seasonal workers in agriculture. While it does not matter whether you produce cars or airplanes in April or September, these time constraints are very critical in agriculture, despite ubiquitous technological development. A limited number of workers at seeding time may lead to lower yields, thus higher prices or even a lack of some types of fruit, vegetables or other crops during the year.1 European countries report shortages of hundreds of thousands of seasonal workers, people who mostly spend spring and summer in western and southern Europe instead of their homes in eastern Europe or north Africa (Evans & Majos, 2020). Therefore, recently some strict lock-downs or border closures have been lifted for agricultural migrant workers in time for the seeding of early crops (e.g. asparagus).2 The overall uncertainty, risk of contracting coronavirus or repeated border closures because of future waves of Covid-19 spread make the interaction of natural, pandemic and social time very intricate. A lack of workers in harvest time in summer may also cause huge food and economic losses for farmers and price volatility for customers. In this sense, Covid-19 and the current lock-down measures accelerate the food & sustainability debates with at least two very different potential outcomes (perhaps both had they been implemented simultaneously).

The first possible outcome is strengthening the idea of local food systems and short food supply chains especially to foster resilience of urban areas with high population density (Barthel et al., 2013). Alternative food systems (urban agriculture, community supported agriculture, box schemes, farmers markets, various forms of gardening, etc.) is an umbrella term for an alternative to conventional large-scale industrial agricultural production, processing and distribution. Often, the alternative food systems have an explicit environmental or political context stressing local or organic production, solidarity and sustainability in general. This trend has been there for a while; current events can strengthen it and stress its social and economic aspects by rejecting socially exclusive alternative food systems (e.g. some trendy farmers markets in gentrified quarters, exemplified mostly by unaffordable prices for many locals) and by highlighting the conventional food systems’ reliance on migrants working under far from fair conditions. The potential severe economic impacts of slowing down the society and economy can have a transformative potential for thinking about the sustainability of food systems, about food as commons and as a basis of our society, about food producers as essential workers and about various perspectives of resilience wider than capability to cope with catastrophes (e.g. Jehlička et al., 2019).

The second potential outcome of the current pandemic is emphasizing countries’ self-sufficiency in basic food, like crops, vegetables, fruit and meat. If globalized international just-in-time supply chains are threatened this seems like a rational answer. Moreover, a higher level of food self-sufficiency can highlight the importance of agriculture in rural areas which often struggle to find their identity between agricultural production, nature protection and amenity consumption (Holmes 2006). Potentially, the increased need of farm workers could partly mitigate the expected boom of unemployment in other sectors. However, the self-sufficiency and production ethos could be used as an argument against calls for environmentally friendly agriculture (Pe’er et al., 2020), especially in countries with a dominance of large agricultural holdings (Vávra et al., 2019). Time is critical here as well. A strong productivist approach might bring short term benefits in terms of higher yields and profits for agricultural enterprises, though in the long term we will all pay “the bill” through involuntary adaptation to more severe impacts of climate change, loss of biodiversity and a fragile landscape. Many managers of the agricultural enterprises might get surprised when they realise one day that there is no fertile soil on their fields due to soil erosion.

Getting back to a more individual or household level, my home country Czechia provides an interesting example of the collision of attempts to slow down social life in order to flatten the curve and the rhythm of nature and everyday life. In March, the Czech government’s resolution led to the closure of many types of shops and services but flower shops and garden centres were soon reopened. Several reasons were mentioned to explain this exception including those time related: flowers are needed for funerals (not only those due to Covid-19); the beginning of the gardening season in spring; and the idea that people will spend their time in gardens, instead of going shopping (as large supermarkets remained opened) (Volf, 2020). Natural time met social tempo, and governmental response also reflected a strong cultural habit of gardening and food growing among the Czech population.

One may also think about more pragmatic reason for the early reopening of the garden centres. While gardening is popular in Czechia regardless gender, age, education, income or place of living, older people are those who are more involved in gardening.3 At the same time, almost half (45 %) of the voters of the leading government’s party ANO are pensioners (Nádoba, 2019); market research confirms that the party voters are in general gardening or growing flowers more often than the average Czech (Behavio, n. d.). By this I do not want to argue that the reopening of garden shops was driven mainly by the interests of the voters, however, Prime Minister Andrej Babiš and party ANO are well-known for their very strong PR communication and politics adapted to changes of public opinion.

In conclusion, let’s point to another time aspect of gardening. Food growing in the garden is often a multifaceted activity animated by various reasons, including health, cultural, economic, social and environmental concerns which are, at least in the Czech case, rather more implicit than openly articulated or political. Gardening may be interpreted as “quiet sustainability” – an activity which unintentionally provides environmental but also social and economic benefits (Smith & Jehlička, 2013). Harsh social restrictions and their economic outcomes may bring about an increase of gardening and food production due to several reasons: for some, it will be a hobby because of limited possibilities of how to spend free time (restrictions on travelling, cinemas, theatres, sport events, etc.); for others, their own produced food may become an important supplement of household economy (especially when expecting increased unemployment as well as the growing prize of fruit and vegetables). Gardens also provide a safe space for being outside and communicating with others in social distance. Be it any of these reasons, increased time spent in gardens have the potential to foster gardening and food growing as a social practise, thus increasing the resilience of the communities as well as contributing to environmental, economic and social sustainability.

I would like to acknowledge precise and valuable editorial comments and suggestions by Filip Vostal (Institute of Philosophy of the Czech Academy of Sciences) and language proofreading by Justin Calvin Schaefer (University of South Bohemia).

Jan Vávra.

University of South Bohemia & Jan Evangelista Purkyně University

Co-Investigator of the research project Spaces of Quiet Sustainability: Self-provisioning and sharing

Twitter: @hansvavra

21. April 2020

Footnotes:

1 Moreover, climate change manifested by often repeated droughts has the potential to cause severe impacts on agricultural production too.

2 However, such decision can have serious health consequences in terms of Covid-19 spread. As Rogozanu and Gabor (2020) argue, it illustrates European political economy and the weak position of east European workers in the system.

3 In 2015, at least some food was produced in gardens of 38 % of Czechs. The share was 44 % of people in age group over 55 years; these people worked in the garden more often than younger ones as well. For more details about the research see e.g. Jehlička et al. (2019). Based on our long term research, we interpret this rather as a function of more free time to be spent in garden than a financially led activity caused by a decrease of income after retirement.

References:

Barhtel. S., Parker, J., & Ernston, H. (2013). Food and green space in cities: A resilience lens on gardens and urban environmental movements. Urban Studies, 52, 1321–1338.

Behavio. (n. d.) Češi, kteří v roce 2017 volili do sněmovny ANO 2011. Atlas Čechů. Available at https://atlascechu.cz/results/elected_2017-ano_2011.

Evans, J., & Majos, A. (2020). European governments scramble to find farm workers for harvest. Financial Times, 14 April 2020. Available at https://www.ft.com/content/601a4dd9-b996-4c49-bc22-8f49bfd06ea0.

Holmes, J. (2006). Impulses towards a multifunctional transition in rural Australia: Gaps in the research agenda. Journal of Rural Studies, 22, 142–160.

Jehlička, P., Daněk, P., & Vávra, J. (2019). A change engaging resilience: Home gardening, food sharing and everyday resistance. Canadian Journal of Development Studies, 40, 511–527.

Nádoba, J. (2019). Kde by byl Babiš bez důchodců? Respekt, 29 January 2019. Available at https://www.respekt.cz/politika/kde-by-byl-babis-bez-duchodcu.

Pe’er, G., et al. (2020). Action needed for the EU Common Agricultural Policy to address sustainability challenges. People and Nature, 8 March 2020. Available at https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/pan3.10080.

Rogozanu, C., & Gabor, D. (2020). Are western Europe’s food supplies worth more than east European workers’ health? Guardian,16 April 2020. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/commentisfree/2020/apr/16/western-europe-food-east-european-workers-coronavirus.

Smith, J., & Jehlička, P. (2013). Quiet sustainability: Fertile lessons from Europe’s productive gardeners. Journal of Rural Studies, 32, 148–157.

Vávra, J., Duží, B., Lapka, M., Cudlínová, E., & Rikoon, J. S. (2019). Socio-economic context of soil erosion: A comparative local stakeholders’ case study from traditional agricultural region in the Czech Republic. Land Use Policy, 84, 127–137

Volf, T. (2020). Mít otevřeno je za trest, naříkají květináři. Není za tím Babiš, o výjimku žádal svaz. Novinky.cz, 31 March 2020. Available at https://www.novinky.cz/koronavirus/clanek/mit-otevreno-je-za-trest-narikaji-kvetinari-neni-za-tim-babis-o-vyjimku-zadal-svaz-40318766.