Fraying Food System May Be Our Next Crisis
April 23, 2020
If you’re already overwhelmed with news of the pandemic and are coping with depression, read no further. However, if you’re a crisis responder by inclination or profession, you might start thinking food.
Experts who study what makes societies sustainable (or unsustainable) have been warning for decades that our modern food system is packed with ticking bombs. The ways we grow, process, package, and distribute food depend overwhelmingly on finite, depleting, and polluting fossil fuels. Industrial agriculture contributes to climate change, and results in soil erosion and salinization. Ammonia-based fertilizers create “dead zones” near river deltas while petrochemical pesticides and herbicides pollute air and water. Modern agriculture also contributes to deforestation and biodiversity loss. Monocrops—huge fields of genetically uniform corn and soybeans—are especially vulnerable to pests and diseases. Long supply chains make localities increasingly dependent on distant suppliers. The system tends to exploit low-wage workers. And food is often unequally distributed and even unhealthful, contributing to poor nutrition as well as diabetes and other diseases.
Whatever is unsustainable must, by definition, end at some point, and critics of our present food system say that a crisis is increasingly likely (just as public health professionals had long warned of the growing likelihood of a global pandemic).
And yet, year after year, decade after decade, crop yields have increased. The famine that ecologist Paul Ehrlich cautioned about in his 1968 book The Population Bomb never materialized. Indeed, our ability to feed an exponentially growing human population is frequently touted as a primary benefit of modern industrial agriculture and globalization.
But the coronavirus pandemic poses a new and immediate threat to our food system on top of those already looming. Supply chains are broken, farms and restaurants are going bankrupt, and store shelves are sitting empty while, elsewhere, crops are being plowed under because there is no immediate market for them. Millions who’ve been thrown out of work are wondering how they will afford their next meal, even though produce is rotting in fields and warehouses. Unless something is done soon to take charge of this broken system and reorganize it, we could see entirely unnecessary casualties.
It’s essential to explore this emerging crisis from a few different angles in order to appreciate its wicked complexity.
Vulnerable Food Workers
The Trump administration has designated food and agricultural workers as an “essential” group of workers who are advised to continue working, even if their states have announced shelter-in-place orders. But this implies a cruel irony: many of these “essential” workers are “illegal” and could be rounded up and deported at any moment. Also, the border between the U.S. and Mexico is now closed, making it impossible for documented seasonal migrant farmworkers to cross.
Farmworkers are also vulnerable to the virus. Most are shielded only by bandannas to protect their faces. A 2010 study found that soap often isn’t available in hand-washing facilities in the fields. And social distancing is an unrealistic requirement for farmworkers: according to the 2018 National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS), about a fifth of U.S. farmworkers are migrants, who travel packed in vans or buses to get from job to job. And nearly half of migrant workers live in crowded housing. Farmworkers are currently ineligible for paid sick leave or unemployment insurance in most states, which means that, if they fall ill, they are likely to continue working as long as they can to support their families.
At a Smithfield pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, 240 of the facility’s 3,700 employees recently fell sick. The plant, which accounts for 4 to 5 percent of the country’s pork production, is now closed. Two lamb slaughterhouses and a beef facility have also shut down. If similar closures happen more broadly, significant amounts of food could be removed from supply streams.
Fragile Distribution Networks
Even if plenty of food exists, problems with distribution can result in people going hungry. And the pandemic is disrupting distribution systems worldwide.
Grocery store and warehouse inventories have been upended by customer panic buying. Meanwhile, grocery workers’ health is at risk, and some have begun dying. Like farmworkers, grocery and warehouse workers make low wages and receive few benefits, and are therefore motivated to work even when they don’t feel well. Sickness and stay-at-home orders are also disrupting food transport systems, even though these are likewise deemed essential.
Perhaps the hardest-hit segment of the food system is restaurants. The New York Times reports that up to 70 percent of local restaurants may be unable to re-open after the crisis.
Restaurant closures have knock-on effects: roughly 70 percent of commercial fish are consumed in restaurants; therefore, as a result of declining restaurant demand, fishermen are seeing plunging revenues and looming bankruptcies.
Further, due to closed restaurants, hotels, and schools, farmers are finding that longstanding demand from bulk buyers who supply these outlets is evaporating. As a result, farmers are having to destroy large quantities of milk, eggs, and vegetables. Meanwhile, food processors and packagers are having to decide if they should retool to increase how much they can send to grocery stores instead of restaurants, which is expensive and takes time. Nobody is sure how long this crisis will last, making it difficult to invest millions of dollars in new equipment.
Broken Global Supply Chains
Global trade has plummeted due to the coronavirus pandemic. In an April 8 report, maritime data provider Alphaliner noted that shipping lines have idled vessels with capacity totaling about 3 million containers. The World Trade Organization says the coronavirus pandemic could cause the deepest decline of international trade flows in the postwar era. Much of that trade—both by value and quantity—is comprised of food. Shipping to and from China is down 23 percent, and the nation is heavily dependent on imports for crops like soybeans.
Port backups have paralyzed food shipments around the world. In the Philippines, a port that’s a key entry point for rice is at risk of shutting because lockdown measures are making it hard to clear thousands of piled-up shipping containers. Ports in Guatemala and Honduras, which export specialty coffees, are limiting operating hours due to curfews. And ports in import-dependent Africa are being idled because not enough workers are showing up to unload cargoes.
Hinting at a new trend toward food nationalism, some countries have begun banning food exports. Kazakhstan, one of the world’s top shippers of wheat flour, has suspended contracts, and Vietnam has temporarily stopped accepting new rice export tenders. Serbia has stopped shipping sunflower oil, while Romania has banned grain exports. At the same time, some nations, such as China, are adding to their strategic food stockpiles, thereby removing food from market channels.
Processed food often entails a complicated web of interactions. For example, wheat grown in Europe may be shipped to India to be processed into naan bread for export to the United States. Complex supply relationships like this can be disrupted at many different choke points.
While the U.S. is a major food exporter, it depends on imports for many specialty foods and out-of-season produce, such as seafood from China, avocados from Mexico, and bananas from Central America. Food supply problems for now mostly result simply from problems in moving food to where it’s needed. But if supply chain problems aren’t solved, farmers may increasingly see difficulties obtaining seeds, chemicals, fertilizers, and spare parts for machinery. Actual food production shortfalls could result.
Even without those further logistical difficulties factored in, the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) says there could be global food shortages in April and May as a result of supply problems caused by the coronavirus.
Before the pandemic, American farmers were already facing the greatest adversity in decades. Waves of bankruptcies were engulfing not just family farmers, but even a few big agribusiness firms like Dean Foods. Severe weather related to climate change, and falling commodity prices resulting from globalization, had both hit at once. Meanwhile, farm debt had reached an all-time high of over $400 billion. More than half of all farmers were losing money every year. And perhaps the saddest and most telling statistic of all is that farming communities have seen increased suicides.
President Trump’s trade war made a bad situation worse. Tariffs on Chinese goods like steel and aluminum were answered with 25 percent tariffs on U.S. agricultural exports. China was turning increasingly to countries like Brazil for its soybean and corn imports.
Now the pandemic adds new challenges for farmers, including sickness, the need for social distancing among farmers and farmworkers, broken supply chains, and upended market relationships.
Flooding, fieldwork delays, and plant disease plagued growers across the Corn Belt in 2019. Now, the latest 2020 spring flood outlook shows that farmers in the Midwest could be facing yet another wet year. Although planting is under way in some parts of the country, farmers in many regions are still coping with the aftermath of last year’s floods. As of just a couple of weeks ago, many farmers still couldn’t access all their property due to high water.
That’s just North America. In East Africa, the worst locust swarm in 70 years is hitting Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia. Gro Intelligence reports that about 18 million hectares, or 84 percent of cropland in Ethiopia, is now affected by locusts, while a third of crops in Kenya and 85 percent of crops in Somalia are similarly at risk.
Even if food supplies remain ample and distribution problems are solved, hundreds of millions of currently unemployed people face difficulties gaining access to food.
The charity Oxfam International said on April 9th that half a billion people could be thrown into poverty around the world as a result of social distancing and lockdown orders that have brought global economies to a halt, unless world leaders immediately implement a rescue plan to support poor and less-industrialized countries.
Due to hoarding and the consequent disruption in inventory pacing, U.S. food prices are already up. If supplies begin shrinking, food prices would be bid even higher. This might be good for farmers, but catastrophic for everyone else.
Still, if food prices stabilize or even fall, people who have no money won’t be able to buy groceries. Prior to the pandemic, ten percent of Americans were already chronically food insecure. Now, with massively increased unemployment, lots more are suddenly in that predicament. Food banks are currently not in position to take up the slack, and some food banks are already being overwhelmed.
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Let me be clear: I am not forecasting that a famine will erupt later this year in the U.S. or globally. The FAO assures us that “. . . there is no need for the world to panic. Globally, there is enough food for everyone.” And I certainly don’t advise panic buying, as that will only worsen existing supply-chain problems.
However, there is more food supply uncertainty now than at any recent time, including the dark days of 2008-2009. Perhaps the most likely scenario is one in which, for Americans with income or savings, many preferred foods will become unavailable or significantly more expensive. This may especially be the case for foods that people like to prepare at home (such as pasta, rice, and canned soups), or foods most closely tied to international supply chains.
However, for Americans out of work and with no savings, this could be a time of literal belt-tightening, with the likelihood of widespread hunger depending almost entirely on what state and federal governments do in response to the situation. In poor regions of the world, food stress is particularly likely this year. In any scenario, the worst affected will be the most vulnerable segments of the global population—including migrants and refugees.
If crisis does ensue, food shortages could lead to social and political disruptions. It may be instructive to recall that the Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war were partly caused by rising food prices. If world leaders value their jobs and reputations, they would do well to start planning ways to keep pantries full.
During wars and economic downturns, many people respond intuitively by growing more of their own food. And that is exactly the behavior emerging during this pandemic: local plant nurseries are seeing runs on topsoil, seed potatoes, plant starts, and veggie seeds. Baker Creek seed company, one of America’s top suppliers of heirloom organic seeds, ran out of stock in mid-March. And Oregon State University’s spring Master Gardener class, which usually sees 150-250 applicants, was inundated with roughly 25,000 requests.
Crisis managers and resilience thinkers have foreseen the circumstances now unfolding; indeed, a pdf website titled “Food Security in a Pandemic” by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO, a division of the World Health Organization, or WHO) discusses what municipalities can do to make sure everyone in their region is fed. The advice to local leaders is:
- In the early stages of a pandemic, don’t wait until food supply problems appear to begin strategizing and taking action.
- Prioritize who will get food rations.
- Monitor all aspects of the regional food system.
- Encourage sharing and bartering among households.
- Set up food trade and barter locations.
- Mandate a price freeze on staples.
- Encourage transaction by phone and internet.
At the national level, food price controls have an uneven history of success. However, as Stan Cox details in his indispensable book Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present, and Future of Rationing, rationing has often worked wonders to stabilize food supply systems. Just one example: the British people were better nourished under food rationing during and immediately after World War II than they were prior to the war or in subsequent decades. The United States rationed during both World Wars, and continues to do so: the Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, also known as food stamps) is essentially a national rationing program for low-income people. Food stamp enrollment has erupted since early March; in just one week, California saw nearly 100,000 new applicants for its SNAP outlet, CalFresh.
In many respects the pandemic highlights long-standing food problems. If we are to avert not just this food crisis but the next one as well, deeper changes to the current system are needed. We must redesign the relationships between food producers, processors, retailers, and consumers so as to shorten supply chains and create more slack in the system. Large, centralized systems are touted as efficient, but often they are instead fragile. We need a food system that is antifragile, to use a term coined by Nassim Taleb. That requires decentralization and more localization, which would entail the buildout of many more small-to-mid-sized farms and the facilities to process, store, and sell the food grown on these farms. This is the opposite of what has happened in the decades since WWII. We used to have many small and mid-sized farms, but they went bankrupt or were bought out. Somehow, we need to make sure they can survive and thrive. And we must prioritize food production methods that use a minimum of fossil fuels, that capture atmospheric carbon and sequester it in soil, that build healthy and biologically rich topsoil, that deliver nutritious and affordable food, and that are fair to farmers and farmworkers.
Many farmers and other food system workers are already doing what they can to create a more resilient, just, and sustainable network. Jason Bradford, a biologist and organic farmer in Corvallis, Oregon (author of a report released last year on vulnerabilities and paths to reform the food system, and Board President of the organization I work for, Post Carbon Institute), has already joined with fellow local farmers to create a new Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program to respond to the coronavirus pandemic and a potential associated food crisis. Bradford told me, “We’re growing vegetables, fruits, dry beans, and cereal grains to provide a plant-based diet for everyone who joins the CSA. In addition, we are locally sourcing meats (beef, pork, and chicken), eggs, cheese, baked bread, and honey that can be ordered weekly for an additional charge per item.” Obviously, Bradford’s CSA can’t feed everyone who might like to join, but a national CSA movement already exists and could be expanded.
For better or worse, this is likely to be a historic moment of change for our food system. Events may take us in one or another direction. If big existing players in the food industry are first in line for bailouts and use the crisis as an opportunity to gobble up their smaller competitors, we could soon find ourselves dependent on a food system that is even more consolidated and deregulated, and even less resilient in the face of future disruptions. On the other hand, governments, producers, and consumers could use the crisis as an opportunity to address festering food supply issues, and to refashion the system in a way that better meets everyone’s needs over the long run. We all have a stake in the outcome.