Crisis and Opportunity for Local Food Systems

Over the past few weeks, I have been getting quite a few questions about the implications of the coronavirus pandemic for the future of the food system. I have been gathering my thoughts during various online conversations, which I will share in this and my next blog post. Perhaps most important, the COVID-19 pandemic is revealing fundamental flaws inherent in the current industrial, global food system. Most consumers were previously unaware of these vulnerabilities. There had been plenty of food in the supermarkets and there were many restaurant options, so most consumers didn’t think much about the possibility of something going wrong until it actually happened. They didn't understand how vulnerable the current system is to disruption and even potential collapse.

Some of the most relevant characteristics of today’s industrial food system are specialization, standardization, and consolidation. These traits are essential in achieving the economic efficiencies or economies of large-scale food production and distribution. While such systems can be very economically efficient, they are inherently very risky and vulnerable to adversities.

Large, specialized farming operations are vulnerable to unpredictable and unavoidable adverse weather conditions, pest pressures, diseases, and other disruptions to growing conditions. Large, confinement livestock and poultry operations are particularly vulnerable to disease outbreaks or power outages. Prices of agricultural commodities are particularly volatile and unpredictable because of the fundamental nature of the supply and demand for food. Localized disruptions such as hurricanes, floods, or other natural disasters present additional disruptions of food supplies.

Farmers know these kinds of problems will reoccur periodically, they just don’t know precisely when something will happen or how bad the disruptions will be. Farmers also know the large, industrial farming operations lack the resilience to cope with these adversities. They have had to rely on government programs to absorb the inherent risks. Subsidized crop production/price insurance and periodic "disaster payments" are prime examples. Taxpayers are told they have to support these programs to ensure food security. The current global pandemic reveals systemic risks in the food system as a whole that is of the same basic nature as the risks associated with periodic disturbances in farming—but of far greater magnitude. We have allowed the big farms and corporate food businesses have become “too big to fail.” While tragic in its consequences, the COVID-19 pandemic provides an opportunity to increase public awareness of fundamental flaws of the industrial global food system as a whole—from farms and feedlots to restaurants and supermarkets.

Examples of such flaws are readily apparent in recent coronavirus virus outbreaks in several large livestock slaughter and meat processing plants in Iowa and South Dakota. A single Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota was killing 4-5% of the nation’s hogs. Less than 10% of the 3,700 employees had tested positive for the virus, but the highly contagious nature of the virus forced the entire plant to be closed. These large livestock and poultry processing plants, where workers stand shoulder to shoulder, provide the ideal environment for spreading viral infections. The forced closure of a few large plants of this nature could seriously disrupt the entire national supply of livestock and poultry. Already, farm-level prices for agricultural commodities have shown steep declines. Fortunately, this particular virus apparently can be killed by normal processing methods and thus is not likely to spread through the food supply. However, we may not be so fortunate with the next pandemic. A pandemic caused by antibiotic-resistant bacterial contamination of the global food supply could be even worse than COVID-19. Past outbreaks of food-borne illnesses confirm that large fruit and vegetable processing plants are equally vulnerable to creating pandemics. In addition, entire national and global food systems are vulnerable to any major disruptions in transportation, electrical power, or communications.

The government response thus far has been similar to previous attempts to prop up and provide temporary fixes to a food system that is fundamentally flawed. In fact, the response has been much the same for large agricultural operations as for large financial institutions during the financial crisis of 2008-2009. Like the large banks, the large farming and food processing operations reap the profits when things are good and the taxpayers absorb their losses when things go bad.

However, times of crisis not only reveal vulnerabilities but also present opportunities for fundamental, systemic change. Fortunately, a large and growing number of farmers have been aware for decades of vulnerabilities in the industrial food system and have been working diligently to create resilient alternatives. Thus far, they have sold their products to growing market niches made up of consumers who share their concerns and core values. The farmers may call themselves “real organic,” ecological, holistic, biodynamic, natural, humanely raised, grass-based, free-range, or other names that address specific consumer concerns about the industrial food system.

Their farms are diversified, rather than specialized, individualistic rather than standardized, and independently operated rather than centrally or corporately controlled. They are smaller than industrial farms because they rely more on intelligent management and skilled labor and less on off-farm inputs and technology and access to land, and capital. These new farms are not big enough to affect local food markets by increasing or decreasing production.

Collectively, these farmers are capable of creating a resilient, regenerative, resourceful, and sustainable food system. Collectively, these farmers can meet the food needs of all in the present without diminishing opportunities for those of the future. Contrary to persistent propaganda, the food needs of 70% to 80% of the global population are not being met by industrial agriculture, but by small family farms. Global research indicates also that production on many of these farms could be doubled or even tripled by adopting existing sustainable farming methods, not by industrial agricultural technologies. These estimates have been confirmed by various international organizations, including the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations. The world doesn’t need industrial agriculture.

These new farms don’t fit the industrial system of food processing and distribution and thus have had to develop their own marketing and distribution systems. Most of these farmers produce for local customers and sell at farmers markets, CSAs, roadside stands, or perhaps through local grocery stores or restaurants. Some market collectively through local food hubs to local schools or other public institutions. These local niche markets also have been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, local food systems have the resilience and regenerative capacity to adapt, regroup, and withstand the pandemic. They also have an opportunity to emerge even stronger as a consequence of the growth in consumer awareness of the risks inherent in the current industrial, global food system—and the availability of viable local alternatives.

ome of these opportunities are already apparent. There have been widespread reports of increased sales during the crisis by farmers who have an online option. Online grocery sales in general have doubled since people have been urged or ordered to stay at home. Many farmers markets also have gone online. It seems only logical that every farmers market in the country should seize this opportunity to establish an online option for their farmer and customers, as I have urged in a previous blog post. An alternative to personal visits to markets will be valuable for farmers markets that have managed to remain open or are allowed to open on schedule this spring. An online option would not only make markets resilient during future pandemics or disruptions but also would help “weatherproof” outside markets for rainy Saturdays, late springs, and early falls. Online sales linked with home deliveries could remove many of the current obstacles and inconveniences of the local food movement.

Online sales and home delivery options need not hinder opportunities to establish and maintain personal relationship of trust and confidence between farmers and their customers during periodic visits to farmers markets or local farms. Local farmers could use online platforms also to collaborate in providing a wide assortment of locally grown products for local restaurants, schools, hospitals, and other institutional buyers. Community or bio-regionally scaled processing facilities could create local food systems that completely bypass the industrial food system. From an economic perspective, online food systems could function more efficiently than the industrial-scale systems created by or the national distributors of individual meal kits, such as Blue Apron and Hello Fresh. Economies of scale in developing and maintaining online marketing platforms are minimal, and distances between farms and consumers and other logistical complexity would be far less for local online food systems.

The necessary transition from an industrial, global to a sustainable, local food system would be far easier if the current farm policy that subsidies and other supports for industrial agriculture were systematically phased out. New farm policies could shift current federal and state funding to programs that share farmers’ risks of transitioning to sustainable farming systems, instead of continuing to prop up the fundamentally flawed industrial system. Such changes in farm policies have been proposed, and supported by several presidential candidates, to address the other looming crisis of global climate change. However, changes in food systems within local communities and bioregions need not wait for changes in federal or state farm and food policies. The coronavirus crisis presents many challenges but also provides a rare opportunity for systemic change, and those changes can begin in local communities--now.

We should continually remind ourselves that the current industrial food system, while supported by government policies, was not created by some government decree. It was created by voluntary changes in individual farming and food choices—made one farmer and one consumer at a time. The current industrial food system was essentially created during a period of 50 years, primarily between the 1950s and 1990s. I believe a new food system can be recreated even more quickly—once people in general become aware of the necessity for fundamental, systemic change. Regardless, there is no better time than a crisis to seize the opportunity to create a new and better future. The time to begin is now.

John Ikerd