Pandemics and plant awareness: Why COVID-19 made us pay more attention to our food crops

Grocery shopping in 2020 feels a bit like taking your life into your own hands. Some people wear masks and gloves to perform this once-simple errand. Some refuse to do it altogether, relying instead on grocery delivery services like Instacart or Shipt. As a result of COVID-19’s influence on our shopping habits, many people are beginning to notice where their food comes from. While arguably every aspect of grocery shopping has changed, I’d like to focus on one particular aspect: plants.

Plants comprise more of the typical diet than we realize. From vegans to staunch carnivores, everyone needs plants either as a direct food source for themselves or as a food source for the foods they eat. Yet, somehow, many consumers have become completely detached from food crops and their origins. This phenomenon is so pervasive that there’s even a term for it.

Plant awareness disparity (formerly known as plant blindness) is the idea that people neglect to pay attention to the plants in the various environments they navigate. This phenomenon can occur in nature, but it can also happen in oft-visited locations — like grocery stores. Due to this problem, people’s relationships with plants are so superficial and uninformed that humans have become completely disconnected from the sources of their food crops.

Before COVID-19, grocery shopping was a simple exercise: make a list, go in, get what you want, and leave. Grocery stores were a miracle of endless choices of produce grown all over the world. Avocados for our toast came from Mexico. Bananas for our Cheerios came from South America. Oranges…okay, those were probably from Florida. But, unless you lived in Florida, they still had to travel a long way to get to a produce section near you. The point is, you really didn’t need to pay attention to the plants in your grocery store — they were just sort of there. No one noticed things like availability or where their food came from because they had everything they needed — until they didn’t.

As COVID-19 hit, things changed drastically. Fresh produce prices went up, and plant-based alternatives to meat and dairy products skyrocketed as shoppers turned to them to avoid the also-rising costs of real meat and dairy. People bought canned veggies like peas and corn as if they were going out of style. Dry staples such as beans, lentils, and pasta were nowhere to be found as people stocked up on them to prepare for the worst. Even beyond the grocery store, the thorough disruption of major parts of the US agricultural system has made many consumers contemplate not only what they eat but also where that food came from.

COVID-19 is still a problem in the US, so struggles with price and availability won’t be disappearing anytime soon. However, this turbulent time may be the push people need to start paying more attention to our food sources. Some experts have determined that doing so can help prevent the next pandemic, seeing as deforestation leads to imbalances in the biodiversity of an environment. These imbalances allow for species that are often hosts for virulent pathogens (such as COVID-19) to thrive. The leading cause of deforestation? Agriculture. But when consumers purchase sustainably grown food, they can help prevent not only pandemics but also further loss of biodiversity. Even without the threat of another pandemic looming, experts say that climate change will only make matters worse and disrupt the food chain even more than we’ve already experienced. Agricultural deforestation only intensifies climate change so making an effort toward buying and consuming sustainably can help several issues at once. The first step is overcoming plant awareness disparity on both individual and collective levels, seeking out information and buying responsibly based on what we learn.

But what’s the next step? Some consumers have used this change as an opportunity to pursue services such as community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs that allow for cheaper produce and have the benefit of supporting local farmers deeply impacted by the pandemic. Going to a farmers market may be an easy way to get delicious, fresh produce that will last longer since it hasn’t been shipped across a continent. Since most farmers markets are outdoors, buyers can even maintain social distancing measures. Many other people have also explored gardening as a way to both pass the time and get outdoors. In many cases, growing food — whether on a windowsill or in your backyard — is even more convenient than going to a grocery store.

COVID-19 has undoubtedly shaken — and continues to shake — the foundations of grocery shopping and agriculture in the US. It has disastrous consequences, particularly for those without access to alternative sources of food or for those who live in food apartheids. COVID-19 was the first experience many people in the US have had with widespread food shortages. Hopefully, in the future, more people will realize that our food security depends upon overcoming our plant awareness disparity, and maintaining a healthy relationship with the people — and plants — involved with feeding the world.

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Postdoc at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. I research how best to teach people about plants.

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Kathryn Parsley

Postdoc at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. I research how best to teach people about plants.