As seen in: Issue 34

Self-Sustainability In The Wake Of A Pandemic

As food vanished from the grocery shelves this spring, the seed market experienced a renaissance. 

In both the United States and the United Kingdom, seed suppliers couldn’t keep up with a demand unforeseen since the Great Depression. 

Pandemic gardens emerged across the globe, and social media influencers hocked home gardening in the age of the coronavirus. 

But the idea of self-sustainment is much more than a trend. COVID-19 has put many people on alert and shattered the myth that the first world will always be flush with food. 

self sustainability in the wake of a pandemic

Early on in the pandemic, meats and vegetables were a grocery store scarcity. You had to line up pre-dawn to have a shot at purchasing necessities. Hoarding was part of the problem, and supply levels only started to replenish as people realised that the coronavirus wasn’t going away soon, but also wasn’t a doomsday virus. 

Yet, what if the next virus is even deadlier than COVID-19? The novel coronavirus is easily the worst pandemic the western world has experienced in 100 years. Late this summer, the worldwide death toll was approaching one million. In the United States alone, more than 170,000 people were dead by August. The food supply was still threatened, especially in poorer communities. 

Imagine what would happen to the food supply in an even deadlier pandemic. In the decade-old movie Contagion, 25% of those infected with a contagious virus ultimately die. Compare that to the mortality rate of COVID-19. Globally, the death rate from COVID-19 is approximately 3.5%. 

In Contagion, grocery stores are rioted, and people are left to fend for themselves. It’s not quite that dire in the real world, but for the first time in our lifetime, we realize that a virus is a much greater threat to civilization than a nuclear war. 

And that’s why self-sustainment is suddenly so appealing, both short and long term. It starts with the food supply and pandemic gardens. 

“After coronavirus, nothing less than a revolution in rural sustainable development can prevent another crisis,” Shanu Hinduja, Co-Chair of the United Nations Global Accelerator, recently told the World Economic Forum. ‘Like our ancestors, we must learn to heed the call of the land, the rhythm of the seasons, the social bonds that hold us together. Developed nations and the developing world must value their farmers, healers, and teachers. This virus has shaken the very foundations of our societies. How we build on those foundations is up to all of us.

While grocery stores in the U.S. have been largely replenished, laid-off people are struggling to pay for food. Six million Americans have registered for food benefits since March, according to CARE. In Britain, one in four adults were struggling to gain access to nutritious food. In the Developing World, it’s much worse. People facing food shortages has tripled in Latin America. In Southern Africa, as much as 90% are dealing with a lack of food. 

In the U.S., it’s led to a massive spike in home gardening. 

“It’s been ‘all hands on deck’ here just to get the orders out,” Tom Johns, co-owner of Territorial Seed Company, the Northwest’s largest mail-order seed firm, told the Seattle Times. 

Johns said he saw increases in seed demand in previous recessions and leading up to Y2K, but it paled in comparison to what he’s seen with COVID-19. At one point, he had to shut down all new orders. 

“This one is the most extreme for us in a lot of ways,” Johns said. “It’s more real and scarier to people.”

An increase in urban farming has also led to chicken feed shortages as people look to farm their own eggs. The City of San Diego launched a new urban farming website in June, laying out regulations for raising chickens, bees, and goats in residential neighbourhoods. 

“Just because we live in a big city doesn’t mean we cannot become small-scale farmers,” Erik Caldwell, San Diego’s deputy COO, said months after the coronavirus changed the way Americans think and live. 

And this change in mindset is about more than just what people eat. Following the suburban revolution of the mid and late 20th century, there had been a shift back to big city living. Shorter commutes and a walkable lifestyle appealed to a generation born in the ‘burbs. 

However, the coronavirus pandemic has people thinking again about moving away from the crowd – perhaps to even more remote areas than the suburbs. COVID has forced many to work from home, and some businesses might make the shift permanent to lower costs.

Michael Reynolds, a New Mexico-based architect, has spent 40 years planning for this scenario. His “Earthship Biotecture” homes, recently featured in Fast Company Magazine, are made from adobe, cement, and recycled items such as glass bottles and beer cans. The homes generate their own solar electricity, process sewage, collect rainwater, and feature mini-hydroponic planters and greenhouses. 

“(People in Earthships) don’t have to pay for heating and cooling,” Reynolds told Fast Company. “They don’t have to pay electric bills. They don’t have to pay for garbage pickup, a sewage bill, a water bill, and they are growing a lot of food. It has reinforced that if we’re observing this in a pandemic, then the future problems that we’re going to have on this planet (can be partially addressed with Earthships).”

Earthships aren’t cheap – they run between $180 and $250 a square foot. A two-bed, one-bath model can cost $300,000. But monthly costs are significantly reduced without electric bills and major grocery expenses.

It’s too early to know if COVID-19 will change most people’s long term view on self-sustainment. But there’s no question some positives have emerged in a time of turmoil. In Venice, tourists have disappeared, and the canals are clean for the first time in decades. Carbon emissions are down worldwide. And people realize that since you can’t truly prepare for a pandemic, you need to have a Plan B. 

“Developing skills in farming and a move towards self-sufficiency in domestic food production must be at the center of every country’s plan for a sustainable recovery,” said Hinduja, the co-chair of the United Nations Global Accelerator. “This will require a reversal of previous trends towards ever greater urbanization and detachment from our food supply.”

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