A world-renown foods rights academic has warned that the Covid-19 pandemic has caused a “hunger crisis” even in some of the world’s richest countries.

Michael Fakhri, a professor at the University of Oregon School of Law, specialising on human rights, food law, development, and commercial law, said his “best guess” was that it would take at least a decade before the world recovers economically from the pandemic.

Speaking tonight (February 9) at the Food, Farming and Land Convention – a two-day conference examining the future of sustainable farming and land management practices in Northern Ireland – he warned the pandemic had caused setbacks in terms of access to food for many of the most deprived in society.

Fakhri is also the director of the Food Resiliency Project in the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Center.

“Already people in Northern Ireland are thinking about food, not just as a matter of safety and nutrition but in a systemic way,” he said.

My approach is that if you change a food system you can change a country.

“Covid-19 has highlighted the limits of the existing food systems all over the world because Covid-19 has not only been a public health crisis but it has also generated a hunger crisis – in the UK and everywhere else. The virus is new, but it has been predictably harshest on marginalised people.

“In fact, the world was falling behind on realising the right to food even before the pandemic – the number of hungry and undernourished people in the world had been rising since 2015.”

Fakhri is a proponent of eating with dignity as an important right. Food must be available and accessible – both economically and socially, meaning people should have the time and resources to cook for themselves.

He joined Northern Ireland Economy Minister Dianne Dodds, Stormont Agriculture chairman Declan McAleer, and James Elliott, senior civil servant within the Department of Communities, working on the department’s Access to Food team, on the panel.

The peril of imbalance

McAleer explained some local food issues during the pandemic were driven by consumer fear but had direct impacts at farm-level.

“In the early days of the pandemic consumers weren’t sure what to expect so we saw a lot of panic-buying. Food systems here were robust and able to react.

“But one example was that earlier in the first lockdown supermarkets saw much higher demand for cheaper cuts like mince – which as we know in terms of the animal, is a cheaper cut from the fore-quarter,” he said.

People were buying it to freeze it ‘just in case’. At the same time, we had the hospitality sector shutting down. So what happened was a surplus of the more expensive cuts and the processors were freezing and storing these and it led to a carcass imbalance which had an impact on overall farm-gate prices.

“It had a big impact particularly on grass-fed cattle, the animal welfare standards means that as much as possible, the whole animal needs to be used [to ensure profitability] – that’s the best way to maximise the environmental benefits.

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“It came about that some of the supermarkets were importing mince from some of the other EU countries to meet consumer demand driven by panic-buying. Meanwhile, our local beef farmers saw a dramatic fall in the prices paid to them because of the carcass imbalance.

“Many of our local farmers, working on small profit margins, found it very hard to manage.”