We’ve experienced the sensation on the way to the supermarket. A small sense of nervousness, perhaps anticipation: ‘What will the situation be like today – will there be enough products in stock?’ or ‘It’s already 5pm, am I arriving too late?’ Large queues in front of supermarkets in other countries won’t fade from the back of our minds. We have laughed about toilet-paper videos and memes, yet now worry whether our stash is sufficient. While it is of course healthy to engage in humor, particularly during times of confinement, it is also highly unnecessary to engage in hoarding behaviors.
Social behaviors based on reality or fiction?
The fact that blog posts such as ‘18 Best Post-Apocalyptic Movies on Netflix Right Now’ emerge so frequently is a strong indication of the fascination many people have with end-of-the-world scenarios. The preppers out there feel that we may finally have one! It is time to brace ourselves and apply our knowledge obtained from hours of watching ‘The Walking Dead’, ‘Outbreak’, and other apocalyptic entertainment. Is this really needed though? And, more importantly, what impact can this behavior have?
What the officials say: not a food security situation!
While the shelves for canned foods, rice, and pasta may appear emptier these days, officials and retailer associations across Europe insist that we are not facing any type of food shortage. Supporting this argument, other countries experiencing acute coronavirus outbreaks (e.g. Italy) or countries that appear to have already passed the peak (e.g. China) have not reported any major issues regarding the disruption of their food supply.
At the moment, what we are lacking is disinfectant products and medical equipment, which is not only far more important but also the real reason that could potentially endanger you. Farmer and industry associations also assure us that food supply chains are not endangered. Certain shortages in labor may exist where due to the closing of borders seasonal workers cannot be hired. This problem could be solved by allowing people that are temporarily out of work because of the crisis to step in and help out.
If food supply chains across borders are not affected and there is no indication that coronavirus will affect the climate, soil, or food yields, then the main danger out there is our own irrational behavior.
Respect for vulnerable populations, farmers, and our environment
The only likely result of hoarding food is, in the short term, to add to the already uncomfortable situation faced by our fellow citizens, particularly of those belonging to the elderly and other vulnerable populations. In the long term, the likely effect of hoarding is that food will go to waste, along with the huge amounts of labor and energy invested to produce it, and its associated GHG emissions. Indeed, food waste is very relevant in relation to climate change, representing a mind-boggling 4% of Germany’s total GHG emissions. On a global scale, if food waste were a country it would be the third-largest emitter.
What is actually recommended? Keep calm and plan ahead
Even before corona hoarding, people habitually bought more food than they used, some of which became surplus and the excess is eventually wasted. The corona crisis compounds this problem: people buy large amounts of fruits and vegetables, probably to keep healthy (try to get some fresh ginger in Berlin these days!), in addition to large amounts of staples and canned food. Often the purchases are not planned very well and only loosely relate to what people end up cooking.
When it comes to disaster preparedness, German authorities recommend having food and drink supply for ten days, with an emphasis on liquids and food that you normally use. As our food supplies are not cut off, corona would not even qualify as an emergency in the understanding of disaster relief organizations, so there is no need to go beyond what authorities recommend anyways. Of course, there will be exceptions. If you are shopping for your 90-year-old grandmother and wish to minimize her exposure to you, by all means, buy her enough supplies – food that she will cook and eat.
In the weeks to come many people will have more time at home, which could be used for slowing down and for self-reflection. This is definitely the time to show solidarity with vulnerable populations, maximize social distancing, and follow measures indicated by the authorities that can actually save lives. It is also the time to test new recipes, spend time cooking, maybe try cutting back on meat, and test some of our new plant-based recipes. (We have decided to make our Climate Focus Cookbook available openly and free of charge.)
Out of respect for our farmers, vulnerable populations, and our planet, please reflect on your purchases next time around. The time to step up and show solidarity is now… limit your purchases and consider how much fresh produce and toilet paper you really need!