Food retail in times of Covid-19

by GRAIN | 21 May 2020

Fish market in Malayia

Supermarket Asia bulletin #18, May 2020


The Covid-19 pandemic continues wreaking havoc, with over 3.9 million confirmed cases and over 270,000 people dead from the virus worldwide, as of May 7. Millions more around the world are housebound because of government measures to flatten the curve of outbreaks. With this new reality, ensuring that people have access to food has become a crucial issue.

The first wave of lockdown measures that governments applied triggered panic buying of food, as people, fearing possible shortages, filled up their kitchens and pantries with food supplies to last several weeks. As the restrictions on movement became tighter and as the lockdowns continued, people began to turn more and more to e-retailers for their food purchases.

Whereas it has delivered a severe blow to many business sectors, the first months of the pandemic have been a bonanza for e-commerce giants. Already in mid-March, for example, Amazon said it would be hiring 100,000 additional workers across North America and Europe within a few weeks and its CEO and founder Jeff Bezos was reported to have increased his personal wealth by US$24 billion. UK-based supermarket Tesco also announced plans to increase the numbers of workers across Malaysia to quickly handle online orders, when only a month prior it had announced plans to exit its Southeast Asian operations.

The global market consultancy company McKinsey called e-commerce supermarkets the biggest winners of this round of the pandemic. After acquiring the Indian operations of UberEats earlier this year, Deepinder Goyal, CEO of online food delivery app Zomato is now in talks to acquire it’s competitor, Grofers, at US$750 million value. Zomato’s business expansion came at the same time they announced that the company sets to lay off more than 500 employees due to the Covid-19 economic downturn.

In China, ground zero of the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a pronounced shift in the way fresh foods are bought and sold. In 2018, e-commerce in China accounted for only 4.9 percent of total fresh food sales, but since January, new users of the top e-commerce platforms have gone up by 50 to 200 per cent., China’s second largest e-commerce company, had a 374 per cent transaction volume increase in January compared to the same period last year.

This rapid online shift has not come without a cost. Shareholders and executives of giant e-retailers have collected these huge profits on the backs of their workers, who have been pushed to carry out extra work in unsafe working conditions. But, despite workers’ concerns and denouncing of their exposure to high risks, little has been done by these profit-driven companies to ensure their safety. On International Workers’ Day this year, tens of thousands of workers from Amazon and Instacart – a North America-based online groceries corporation- staged walkout protests across the United States to denounce their unhealthy working conditions.

The situation is even worse for workers within the large-scale food industries that supply online retailers or supermarkets. The meat processing plants of the largest global meat corporations, already known to be unsafe and highly exploitative work places, have become hotbeds for Covid-19 infections in North America, Europe and Brazil. These companies kept their plants operating at full speed aware that this would make effective social distancing and other necessary protective measures impossible.1 The companies even encouraged their employees to come in sick to work.2 The result has been a rash of Covid-19 outbreaks in meat processing plants, particularly in major meat exporting countries like the US, Canada, Brazil and Spain. As of 6 May, Covid-19 cases had been detected at 187 meat plants in the US, with 12,000 workers infected with the disease and 48 dead from it. At one of Tyson Foods' US plants, nearly 900 workers have tested positive for Covid-19 so far.

Agricultural workers in plantations and factory farms are among the most exploited, with the lowest wages and almost no basic social protection. According to ILO, a quarter of agricultural workers live in conditions of extreme poverty. The reality is even harsher for the many undocumented agricultural migrant workers, often unprotected by labor laws. Palm oil giant Korindo, operating in southern Papua, has reportedly been threatening to fire its workers if they leave the plantation premises, despite complaints from workers about poor quarantine standards and health protection.

Meanwhile, unable to find buyers, small farmers and fishers from Malaysia to India have been dumping their harvest. Border closures, transportation restrictions and the shut down of local markets are all factors that have made it almost impossible to get their produce to customers, including wholesale markets and restaurants. All this, despite the fact that food and agriculture are deemed essential sectors.

Yet some small producers and the alternative food networks that support them have surmounted these obstacles by finding creative ways to sell their produce. One small farmer from Tamil Nadu India, Kannaiyan Subramaniam, turned to Twitter to sell nearly 100 tonnes of cabbage from his farm. It has set a precedent for many other small farmers in India who are now using social media to find customers in times of Covid-19.

In Thailand, mobile vegetable shops have made a comeback. They were once a common sight in many big cities of Southeast Asia, like Bangkok, Jakarta and Hanoi, but were nearly driven out of business by big supermarkets and convenience stores. Wanting to take this idea further, the wholesale market of Bangkok has provided small producers and traders hundreds of trucks to allow them to shift to door-to-door deliveries, similar to the services provide by e-commerce retail chains.

The Beijing Farmers Market, which has also struggled during this pandemic, said that despite the disruption of food supply chains in China from Covid-19, they have observed stronger resilience from small producers than from their industrial counterparts. Through farmers' markets, local wet markets, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and other more localised short food supply chains, these small-holder producers not only manage to take care of themselves, but also to feed urban consumers continuously and consistently. Meanwhile, many big producers face shortages of both labour and supply.

To manage this looming food crisis in both rural and urban areas, policy makers and community leaders need to coordinate with small producers as well as local markets on the best way to organise food systems during this pandemic and in the post-pandemic period. Indeed, despite appearing chaotic , most fresh markets are actually very well-governed structures, managed by cooperatives or associations organised along product lines. As the global farmers’ movement, La Via Campesina stated: trade, especially food trade, should rely on cooperation and not competition. More than ever we need solidarity and camaraderie between rural and urban communities to make sure everyone has access to adequate and nutritious food.

Across the region

The solution to food insecurity is food sovereignty

Human society faces a moment of reckoning. The coronavirus pandemic has brought humanity to its knees and bared its many faultlines. No country has been spared.

As scientists scramble to find a vaccine that could rein in the pandemic, many countries have imposed lockdowns requiring people to stay at home. But for many of the poor, this is a challenge.

Slum-dwellers, living in crammed shacks, cannot abide by social-distancing measures demanded by governments, nor can they follow strict hygiene, as access to running clean water is scarce. The lockdowns have deprived millions of daily wage workers in cities from their income, pushing many families to the verge of starvation.

People living in rural areas are also struggling. While many of us peasants continue to work our fields, we are finding it increasingly difficult to sell our produce. Governments have shut down local markets which has left many of our crops rotting in the fields.

Small-scale fisher-folk have also suffered. Even if they are able to get to their fishing grounds in the sea, lakes or rivers, they too are finding it difficult to distribute their fish. The same is true for pastoralists and family-owned dairy farms.

Small-scale livestock farmers and peasant families with domestic animals are also worried about finding enough feed for them.

While disruption of local small-scale food production has indeed been significant, the large-scale food industry which relies on international supply chains to function has been hit even harder because of travel bans affecting labour supply and international distribution.

Indeed, the pandemic has highlighted yet another ill of countries becoming too dependent on large international food industries. For decades, governments did little to protect small farms and food producers which were pushed out of business by these growing dysfunctional corporate giants.

They stood idle as their countries grew increasingly dependent on a few major suppliers of food who forced local producers to sell their produce at unfairly low prices so corporate executives can keep growing their profit margins. They remained silent as evidence piled up of large agribusiness contributing disproportionately more than traditional small-scale farming to greenhouse gas emissions and global warming.

Local peasant markets gave way to supermarkets, and big businesses and their commodity trading partners took control of the global food system, disregarding all principles of agroecology and food sovereignty.

The aggressive expansion of industrial food production has also increasingly put human health in harm’s way. Apart from the overuse of chemicals and over-processing of foods, which makes them less nutritious and more harmful, it has also resulted in a major increase in zoonotic diseases – those caused by pathogens which jump from animals to humans (just like COVID-19).

Today, food security in countries around the world is increasingly tied to big industrial food production. Singapore, for example, imports some 90 percent of its food; Iraq, which used to be the breadbasket of the Middle East, also gets more than 80 percent of its food from abroad.

The dangers of this dependency on international food supply chains are now coming to the fore, as communities around the world are facing the prospect of hunger. The World Trade Organization (WTO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have already warned of the risk of worldwide “food shortages”.

The COVID-19 pandemic is pushing many to recognise the importance and urgency of food sovereignty – the right of people to determine their own food and agricultural systems and their right to produce and consume healthy and culturally appropriate food.

Countries like Nepal, Mali, Venezuela and several others have already recognised food sovereignty as a constitutional right of their people. Other states should follow suit. Food sovereignty of the people is the best defence against any economic shock.

It addresses the most urgent and pressing need of the people, which is to have healthy, nutritious and climatically appropriate food, grown in a locality or a neighbourhood, where they most likely know the people who produce it. Agroecological and localised peasant production of food respects and co-exists with our natural surroundings. It keeps away from harmful pesticides and chemical fertilisers.

The hard-wired competitive logic of a free market economy should stop defining international trade. Human principles of solidarity and camaraderie should determine global trade policies and networks. For countries where local production is impossible or gravely challenging due to climatic or other conditions, trade should rely on cooperation and not competition.

That is why, for years, peasant movements, such as La Via Campesina, around the world have campaigned and demanded to keep agriculture out of all free trade negotiations.

Any order that promotes life over profits must become the bedrock of human civilisation. We are not living in such a world now, but we surely can.

As the world reels under the fallout of a pandemic, now is the time to start building an equal, just and liberal society that embraces food sovereignty and solidarity.

Article by:

Jeongyeol Kim and Pramesh Pokharel

International Coordinating Committee members of La Via Campesina.

This article first appeared on the Al Jazeera website, on 26 April 2020


Streetnet international statement - In response to Covid 19
Impact of the pandemic on the street/market vendors and all informal traders

The COVID-19, a global catastrophe and emergency brought huge challenges not only related to the health of the whole world population but also economic decrease and livelihood troubles which require fast and proper solutions from the consolidated actions of governments and all stakeholders, to make sure – No One is Left Behind!

StreetNet International, representing over 690,000 street vendors, informal market vendors and hawkers in 54 countries in Africa, Asia, the Americas and Eastern Europe, is deeply concerned about unprecedented pandemic COVID-19 and its rapid spread around the globe which has an enormous negative impact on one of the most vulnerable category of workers in informal economy. These are the workers who are usually not covered by labour laws or receiving social and health protections in their countries.

Street and market vendors are those whose working place is public space and the streets where they earn their basic livelihoods, however, to keep safe and not to be exposed neither to the COVID-19 infection nor to be a transmitter of this infection, they also need to stay in self-isolation in quarantine and maintain social distance.

However, every single day for an informal trader without work makes a big difference. Every single day for a street vendor is a loss of a very basic income to make ends meet. Therefore, in order to simply survive, the vendors still go to the streets and sell as they can’t afford to close their activity and at the same time, they are exposed to a big danger which can cost their life.

To make sure, that each life is counted and valued, and the world is moving towards social justice and equality where humans are the priority, StreetNet International encourages its affiliates to:

  • Call on your governments both at local and national level to consolidate their efforts and all stakeholders concerned to put in place measures and resources to keep all workers and their income safe, no matter what their job or employment relationship is;

  • Call on your governments to provide a universal health care and a basic emergency living cash grant to all informal economy workers and the most vulnerable categories of population regardless of their nationality and residency status;

  • Call on your governments for all informally engaged workers and the most vulnerable to be exempted from the bills for utilities during a time of coronavirus crisis;

  • Call on trade unions, CSOs and any other possible allies in your countries to jointly advocate and address the government with possible solutions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, considering all workers, despite their formal or informal employment form;

  • Call on your members, comrades and all citizens in your community and country for a mutual solidarity support to assist each other in such a needy times and global crisis.

We recommend the entire StreetNet membership base and the whole society to organize solidarity initiatives where the united community can act to prevent street vendors and informal traders from going through a situation of extreme scarcity and vulnerability.

There are already initiatives of solidarity funds, online crowd funding platforms, distribution of hygiene and sanitary stuff and food in defence of street vendors in various parts of the world.

Without failing to hold the public power responsible for the life of its people, times like the one we live in cries out for solidarity and community action.

We are also worried about the need of educating our members about the COVID-19 and how to prevent themselves from this infection as well as following all hygienic methods that reduce the risks of the spread of the virus which are extremely important!!

The same goes regarding the need of always use only official information from official institutions, such as World Health Organization, which provides clear guidelines on all aspects related to the COVID-19, including on how to self-check the health status.

StreetNet Office located in Durban, South Africa will be closed until general situation improves and South Africa withdrawn the lockout. Our team will continue to work from their home in their respective countries on a virtual basis.

It’s a hard time for all of us but we shouldn’t panic, instead, we should support each other and believe that only united we will overcome any challenges including the pandemic COVID-19.

Nothing for Us Without Us!

In solidarity,

StreetNet International

Contact details:

Oksana Abboud, International Coordinator ([email protected])

From the news

Ragi for rice, greens for milk: Old Mysuru returns to barter

Shrinivasa M, Times of India

While city-dwellers turn to delivery apps and e-tailers to source supplies, villagers in Old Mysuru region, India have revived an age-old system of commercial exchange — barter — to ensure they get their millet’s worth of rice or milk and curd as it may be. A week into the lockdown due to the corona virus pandemic, the villages decided to trade food grains, millets, vegetables, milk and milk products to ensure each household got what it needed. “In rural areas, most families are running out of cash. So we decided to barter goods, instead,” said Badagalapura Nagendra, state president of Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha (KRRS/South India farmers movement) and Hasiru Sene.


Coronavirus: Farmers dump their stock after police impose restrictions at wholesale market

Hazlin Hassan and Trinna Leong, The Straits Times

At a time when shoppers in Malaysia are complaining of bare shelves amid the Covid-19 pandemic, fishermen and vegetable farmers have had to dump their produce because they have not been able get it to their customers. About half the vegetable stalls in the wholesale market have also closed, said the Kuala Lumpur Vegetable Wholesalers' Association. Meanwhile, business is thriving in the grocery industry, including for those that offer home delivery services. Online shopping website Lazada has created a new online sales and delivery service to sell vegetables and seafood to customers.


A grocery tycoon races to keep India fed and his company afloat

P R Sanjai and Bijou George, Retail The Economic Times

Kishore Biyani, the founder of Future Group -- which is backed by both Inc. and Blackstone Group Inc. -- has set up a virtual war room practically overnight to ensure his vast chain of Indian grocery stores has enough food and essentials for a nation under lockdown, according to a person familiar with the matter.


No country for foreign retailers

Pitsinee Jitpleecheep, Bangkok Post

Efforts by foreign retailers to establish a presence in Thailand have faced an uphill climb. The closure of Japan's Isetan and the sale of UK-based Tesco's Asian assets to CP Group are the latest evidence underlining the difficulty of sustaining business in the Thai retail market, where local giants have flexed their muscles to become the dominant players.

Today, Thailand's retail business is largely controlled by three billionaire families: the Chearavanont, who have over 10,000 branches of 7-Eleven convenience stores, plus Makro and Fresh Mart; the Sirivadhanabhakdi, who own 1,374 retail stores in various formats, including Big C Supercenter, Big C Market and Mini Big C; and the Chirathivat, who operate 1,205 retail stores via Tops, FamilyMart and Matsumoto Kiyoshi.


How COVID-19 Will Transform the Fresh Food Industry in China

Zoey Zhang, China Briefing

According to a report by a Chinese industry information provider, in 2018, farmers’ markets accounted for about 53.7 percent of the fresh food sources of Chinese consumers, followed by supermarkets at 40.1 percent; fresh food e-commerce accounted for only 4.9 percent.

During the COVID-19 outbreak in China, farmers’ markets with live poultry trade were ordered to be shuttered temporarily or permanently in many regions across the country. Meanwhile, sales for hypermarkets, supermarkets, and e-commerce platforms saw a spike as people opted to go to the supermarkets or order online to stock up on various foods. Since the Chinese Lunar New Year in late January, meat sales of large supermarket chains observed year-on-year growth of more than 30 percent, going even as high as 70 to 80 percent.


1 GRAIN, "Cargill knew! The world’s largest agribusiness company knowingly risked the health of its workers during the Covid-19 pandemic to maximise profits," 26 April 2020:

2 GRAIN, “Profits above all: world's largest pork company propagates global pandemics”, 15 April 2020,


Supermarket watch Asia is a quarterly email bulletin for social movements about developments in food retail and distribution in Asia produced by GRAIN. Click here to view the full issue and subscribe.

Author: GRAIN
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