It has been a year now since COVID-19 was proclaimed a pandemic. Virtually everyone has experienced the disruption of the food system in one way or another. The COVID pandemic also revealed underlying flaws in the agri-food system that remain a continuing threat to the food security of the nation. In the absence of government intervention, the entire food system could have collapsed. I won’t dwell on the consequences but instead will focus on the underlying cause of the disruption and what we can do to prevent similar occurrences in the future.
The large food processors were aware that a disease epidemic was possible but was not prepared for anything as deadly or contagious as COVID-19. The virus was so contagious that processing plants were forced to close down when as few as 10% to 15% of the workforce became infected. The producers of crops and livestock who depended on these processors to process and distribute their products had no alternative buyers. The supermarkets and restaurants were equally unprepared for the disruptions in their sources of products. When a few large food processing plants were forced to close down and others slowed production, the entire food supply chain was disrupted.
This was not only the case for livestock and poultry products but also for fresh fruit and vegetables. Live animals were euthanized and vegetables plowed under while supermarket shelves were left empty. The food system as a whole was on the verge of collapse—until the federal government stepped. The government declared an emergency and ordered the processing plants to reopen—regardless of the consequences for the workers. The processing plants were not designed to accommodate “social distancing” or shielding of workers. Workers were forced to choose between the risks of getting or dying or losing their jobs.
Retail prices in food markets allowed to stay open rose sharply while prices paid to farmers dropped to historic lows. The federal government quickly passed a COVID multi-trillion-dollar spending bill that compensated processors, producers, and restaurants for added expenses and lost revenue. The federal government issued more than $46 billion dollars in “direct payments” to U.S. farmers during 2020, which included payments associated with trade disruptions, and natural disasters, as well as COVID. The economic bottom line for 2020 was that U.S. food processors and large farmers recorded near-record incomes while food industry workers and consumers suffered the consequences. As we learned during the financial meltdown of 2008-2009, it pays to be “too big to fail.”
The current agri-food system is designed for maximum productivity and economic efficiency, which makes it fragile and subject to disruption or collapse. Today’s industrial food processing and distribution system lacks “resilience”—it lacks the ability to resist, recover, and adjust to disruptions such as COVID. The same is true of large, specialized, routinized, mechanized, corporately controlled systems in general. It is true also of large specialized farming operations, which are vulnerable to floods, drought, disease, and late springs or early falls. It is true of large-scale confinement animal feeding operations that are vulnerable to disease outbreaks that wipe out entire herds of flocks and risk causing human pandemics. The volatility of agricultural markets adds to the financial risks of all large-scale operations that specialize in specific commodities. The COVID pandemic simply revealed fundamental flaws that are inherent in the industrial agri-food system as a whole.
The current agri-food system is not sustainable. A sustainable agriculture must be able to withstand the inevitable shocks and disruptions that are consequences of its dependence on the vagaries of nature and the vulnerability of farmers and farm/food industry workers to human frailties. In reality, the only things that have prevented the collapse of the current industrial food system are ongoing government subsidies and periodic government bailouts. Subsidized crop/price insurance, price supports, guaranteed loans, and direct “disaster” payments are among a multitude of government programs through which taxpayers are asked to compensate farmers and food corporations for the lack of resilience in American agriculture.
An even more important flaw revealed by the COVID pandemic was the failure of the industrial agri-food system to provide “food security.” Food security requires access at all times to sufficient quantities and qualities of food to sustain healthy, active lives. Meeting the needs of the present is the first requisite for agricultural sustainability, and no human need is more important than the need for food.
During the pandemic, television newscasts provided vivid images of multiple miles-long lines of cars filled with people desperate for any kind of food assistance. Two nationally representative surveys provided estimates of “food insecurity” during the COVID-19 pandemic. By the end of April 2020, more than one-in-five households in the United States, including two-in-five households with children 12 and under, were food insecure. In nearly one-in-five households with children aged 12 and under, the children were experiencing food insecurity, which most parents are very reluctant to admit.
Even before the pandemic, one-in-nine households in total and one-in-seven households with children were classified as food insecure by USDA. The cold, hard reality is that the industrialization of the agri-food system has failed to alleviate hunger or even contribute to greater food security. In fact, more people in the U.S. are classified as food insecure in the U.S. today than were estimated to be hungry in the late 1960s, the beginning of the latest phase of agricultural industrialization.
The fundamental purpose of the government farm and food policies administered by the USDA is to ensure domestic food security. There is no other purely public purpose to be served by the “farm bill.” Farmers represent a very small percentage of the population and farming is a very small sector of the national economy. This is why the farm bill includes direct government food assistance for the needy as well as subsidies for farmers. The cheap food policies of USDA have actually resulted in increased food insecurity. Hunger is a consequence of social and economic inequity, not the costs of agricultural production. Feeding the hungry is no longer a defensible justification for subsidizing industrial agriculture.
On the bright side, the COVID crisis has also revealed potential alternatives to the industrial agri-food system. When the restaurants and school lunch programs closed and many supermarket shelves were bare, millions of people turned to local farmers to meet their food needs, or at least supplement their diets. Farmers markets, CSAs, and individual farmers who market directly to consumers experienced sharp increases in sales and were flooded with new customers. Those with online access, in particular, experienced sharp increases in demand for their products. Small meat processors were booked solid for months by producers selling direct to customers. The full magnitude of the permanent shift from industrial to local food systems may not be known for another couple of years, but there is no doubt that the pandemic represented an awakening.
Many people question whether it would be possible to essentially replace the industrial agri-food system with a network of local food, community-based food systems. They assume that farmers who are capable of developing and managing resilient, regenerative, resourceful farming systems will always be limited to a few that are capable of supplying small niche markets. However, farmers all across America and around the world are revealing the fallacy of this assumption.
Good Natured Family Farms in the Kansas City, MO area is a coalition of 150 small farmers who share their own product brand and market a wide variety of sustainably produced food products. They market primarily through Ball Foods, which is a local chain of supermarkets. Riverford Organics in Devon, England delivers food boxes containing a wide variety of organic food products produced on a number of different farms to more than 50,000 customers a week. Gunthrop Farms in Lagrange, IN produces, processes, and markets more than a million pounds of pasture-based, free-range pork and poultry products a year through high-end restaurants and direct to individual customers. White Oak Pastures in Blufton, GA employs more than 150 people in their 3,000+ acre diversified vegetable, poultry, and livestock production and processing operation. Shepard’s Grain, a coalition of no-till, sustainable grain producers in the Pacific Northwest, market to bakeries in Seattle, Portland, and other metro areas and have proven that markets for sustainably produced products are not limited to vegetables or animal products.
However, these and other successful organizations and coalitions are led by multitalented, visionary entrepreneurs. Such individuals have succeeded in spite of government programs that have subsidized, supported, and shared the risks of their industrial competitors. They have succeeded with little help from the USDA, state departments of agriculture, or agricultural colleges of Land Grant Universities. These pioneers are blazing the trail for a whole new generation of farmers who are committed to the fundamental principles of sustainability and food security.
However, without fundamental changes in government programs, sustainable farming and domestic food security will remain elusive ideals, experienced by few and denied to the many. The industrial food system exists only because Americans have continued to tolerate government farm and food programs that fail to support either domestic food security or agricultural sustainability. The current farm bill expires and is due to be replaced in 2023. This will be an opportunity to respond to the revelations of COVID-19 with revolutionary change in farm and food policy.