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The food workers producing miracles in a crisis


The global coronavirus pandemic has placed the food supplies we rely upon under unprecedented strain. So we should be amazed by the efforts needed to keep putting meals on our tables, explains James Wong, the new presenter of Follow the Food.

We might not always realise it, but we have access to the most plentiful, the safest, and the most affordable food supply in the history of our species. In just a few short decades, a revolution in agriculture has allowed yields to soar as much as six-fold, lifting millions of people out of poverty.

In fact, during the middle of the 20th Century, this feat saved an estimated one billion of us from starvation by averting a global famine. Yet despite being arguably the greatest of human achievements, it has somehow been all but left out of the history books.

As you may be able to tell, these statistics are ones I am used to rattling off when lecturing students of plant science and agriculture over the years. But it wasn’t until a recent shopping trip amid the lockdown imposed to halt the spread of Covid-19, however, that the real impact of these hit me.

People shopping for fruit and veg at the supermarket

Despite the challenges the pandemic lockdown has produced, there is still plenty of food on our shelves (Credit: Getty Images)

After queuing for 45 minutes to get into my local supermarket – a visit I must have done hundreds of times before without thinking – I felt suddenly overwhelmed by a realisation. Even amid a global pandemic, I was somehow still being presented with a bewildering array of fresh fruit and vegetables on the shelves. Although there have been some brief local shortages of certain products as supermarkets have adjusted to changes in demand, there has certainly been no shortage of food in general. It is testament to a constant supply of plenty, created without the vast majority of the population even needing to leave the comfort of their homes.

You see, in our very recent history, this time of year in temperate regions of the northern hemisphere was known as the “hungry gap”. A period when winter stores ran perilously low and spring harvests had yet to arrive. People would be forced to wade through ice-cold streams to gather watercress (one of the few wild, edible plants around) to keep hunger pangs at bay, leading to its nickname: “poor man’s bread”. And this hunger would last for months on end.

James Wong in front of trees

James Wong is the presenter of the new series of Follow the Food (Credit: James Wong)

Yet just a few days ago, standing amid aisle after aisle of food, my biggest concern was that my normal brand of loo roll was temporarily out of stock. A privilege my ancestors would barely have been able to imagine.

The ability of the food system to keep offering up such plenty in the face of unprecedented challenges is testament to its spectacular resilience. This is why over the coming weeks, the BBC’s Follow the Food will look at how those in the food industry are managing to keep us fed during the pandemic.

This is, in a very real sense, nothing short of a miracle. A miracle created by the hard work and ingenuity of thousands of people, from farmers and scientists, to truck drivers and shelf stackers, and countless others we have all-too-often overlooked. To me they are superheroes, without the capes.

* James Wong is the presenter of the new series of Follow the Food, which is due to be broadcast later this year.

This article is part of Follow the Food , a series investigating how agriculture is responding to environmental challenges. Follow the Food traces emerging answers to these problems – both high-tech and low-tech, local and global – from farmers, growers and researchers across six continents.