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The Deeper Source of Grocery Panic

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In mid-March, as the reality of how COVID-19 would upend daily life became real for people across the U.S. and Europe, Katja Bartholmess went out for provisions in her Berlin neighborhood. At the REWE supermarket, she found long lines and emptied shelves, apart from the odd box of pasta. By contrast, the Boxi (Boxhagener Platz) farmers market was “well visited but well stocked.”

As the coronavirus pushes the food business into unknown terrain, the distinction is revealing. “These sellers are based within a radius of 50 miles,” says Bartholmess, a strategist and anthropologist working with B Lab Europe, a nonprofit seeking to catalyze business as a vehicle for good. “Even if things are shut down, they can pack products into a truck and bring it to people.”

Erratic availability of food supplies has people anxious. While much reflects panic buys and hoarding, the advent of COVID-19 reveals flaws in our food system, frailties that, for the most part, cheap transport and global supply networks have been able to mask. Recognizing this vulnerability highlights the need to bolster resilience in our food system. Ideally, we would decrease our reliance on long, global supply chains that are less alert to local needs and circumstances. As Bartholmess says, “Those farmers and local vendors know their customers and can anticipate and respond to their evolving needs much quicker than a globalized supply chain allows.”

Most food purchases reach our shopping carts via complex supply chains and just-in-time transfers. The volatility of price and supply is camouflaged by international trade regimes, so a bad wheat season in the Midwest can be covered by a bumper year in Ukraine or Brazil. “If you’re Cargill, you don’t care where the soybeans come from,” says Ben Lilliston, Interim Co-Executive Director of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP). “You’re thinking global: Where can we access the soybeans we need?”

The advent of COVID-19 reveals flaws in our food system, frailties that, for the most part, cheap transport and global supply networks have been able to mask.

The erratic weather associated with climate change means more-frequent crop failures. Agribusiness argues that free-trade deals help compensate for local uncertainties, says Lilliston. “We say: The longer the supply chains, the more vulnerable they are.” IATP advocates for robust local and regional food systems backed by the global market—as opposed to global being the first go-to.

As the virus hits different parts of the globe, there’s the potential for supply interruptions. As a result of government policies and subsidies, in the U.S. we have huge overproduction in wheat, corn, and soy. Much of our bounty is shipped abroad to be processed cheaply, then returned to the U.S. as packaged goods. Says Lilliston: If the aim shifted from feeding global trade to feeding people, we could make changes that benefit farmers and communities and also reduce fossil fuel use for transport. The fact that some countries are starting to stockpile food reserves and even halting exports makes reducing dependence on global trade more urgent.

One risk factor is that there’s little slack in the system: Redundancies are smoothed out for efficiency. There are “choke points in the global trade infrastructure, like the Panama Canal,” and these spots could suffer a disaster, says Lilliston. “This is an argument for more food sourced locally and regionally.” While domestic waterways are crucial for moving cargo across the country, key transport facilities are in need of being overhauled. For example, bottlenecks on the lower Ohio River at the busy Locks and Dams 52 and 53, built in 1929, regularly cause long delays. The domestic flow of foodstuffs is also vulnerable since it is organized around specific transit hubs, with a preponderance in Southern California. If droughts worsen in California, a huge proportion of the nation’s source of fresh fruits and vegetables is at risk.

Today, producers are paid little despite the pressure to crank out yields. According to agricultural economist John Ikerd, 15 percent or less of the grocery store price flows back to the farm. “Farmers are at the mercy of the system,” says Lilliston. “Agribusiness wants really cheap commodities so they can export.” He notes that those who grow commodity crops don’t get to set their own price. This puts a strain on farmers. Gail Fuller, a farmer in southeastern Kansas, says this undermines food security. He points to “the number of acres that could go idle in the near future as farm bankruptcies skyrocket. We have a real meltdown going on and the financial and mental health of farmers has us set up for a disaster.”

Much of what we produce isn’t even used for food. Says Fuller: “We are growing food for livestock, most of which are designed not to eat the food we are feeding them—cattle thrive on grass forage, not grains—and food for cars.” He says grain feeding takes a toll on the animals, which are then given antibiotics, contributing to antibiotic resistance in humans. Feed and ethanol production also stresses the environment: This is mostly monoculture corn sprayed with chemicals that harm biodiversity and end up in our waterways.

While Kansans are proud of their state’s iconic role in “feeding the world,” Fuller says Kansas imports 90 percent of its food while 25 percent of children go hungry. We need to rethink how we produce food, he says, warning, “We are really close to having a major disruption in meat production as antibiotic resistance becomes greater” and animals are continually bred for weight gain at the expense of traits that bolster defense. Corn’s genetic variation is also being lost, he says, leaving crops susceptible to blight. (Irish Potato Famine, anyone? The country had banked on a single potato type, the “lumper,” which tragically succumbed to rot.)

We can certainly be more self-sufficient region by region. The chief reason wheat, corn, and soybeans dominate our diet is that this suits the industrial food economy. We would be better off eating much less of them. Also, regions can grow what’s best suited to their ecologies rather than producers trying to shoehorn crops into an unbending market. For example, some local innovators in the Midwest and Northeast are developing agroforestry systems centered on chestnuts and hazelnuts, which are used for highly nutritious flour. One barrier to local production is that regulations are geared toward large operations. This has been a challenge for smaller meat and poultry farmers who may need to travel long distances to a USDA-approved processor.

By being more flexible in our food choices, we can find abundance right in front of us. Nicola Williams, a consultant specializing in sustainable food and culture, says that dogfish, or Cape shark, is abundant in New England’s waters, but people prefer fish they know, like cod and haddock. In the U.K. and Germany, dogfish is prized for fish-and-chips. “Ninety-five percent of this is exported and locally we could be eating it,” she says. Similarly, in Vermont goat cheese is a thriving industry. Williams notes that male goats, which don’t produce milk, are culled and composted. However, many regional ethnic groups eat goat for celebrations—and often the only goat meat they can find in stores is from Australia. She highlights the many opportunities to connect communities with local food sources, in ways that also have ecological benefits.

Better reliance on local and regional food supply can also help avoid disasters like COVID-19. China’s “wet markets” are a petri dish for novel viruses. But we should also examine other developments that increase the likelihood of pathogens leaping to humans from other species, as has happened several times in recent years. See: SARS in 2003 (via civet cats); MERS in 2012 (via camels); Ebola in 2014 (via bats).

One is the trend toward consolidated feedlots in China—what Asia-based journalist David Fickling calls the “urbanization” of livestock. In a recent Bloomberg column, he says, “Epidemics are a product of urbanization” since infections only become established amid concentrated populations. A quarter of the world’s pig herd has been lost to African swine fever, a crisis that is devastating small farms though the main vectors are large, confined pig operations.

“Community food utilities” would serve local farmers, build social bonds, and provide healthier food, without increasing costs.

Fortunately, livestock appropriately managed not only feed people and make use of land unsuited to crop agriculture, but can also restore ecosystems (something I’ve written a book about). Rather than a food economy driven by profit, scale, and mobility, we can add a line item on nutritional and ecological integrity. As we see in the rise of chronic disease, the risk of viral outbreaks, and the ravaging of the environment, the costs are too high not to consider.

Part of the backstory to rising human-animal interactions is agriculture’s encroachment into previously wild environments. The nonprofit GRAIN, which advocates for food sovereignty and biodiversity, reports on land grabs: acquisitions that exploit local lands and communities while benefiting outside investors and companies. Large agricultural projects often entail deep-cutting into forests. This disrupts the diverse ecologies that kept disease contained. It also deprives local people of traditional livelihoods, leaving them little choice but to hunt wild animals—“bush meat”—to feed their families. According to GRAIN’s Devlin Kuyek, between 2006 and 2016 there were 491 large-scale land grabs by foreign companies, accounting for more than 74 million acres of land in 78 countries. Just as the resulting crops enter the anonymous stream of global commodities, the investments behind them are often hidden in financial instruments like pension funds.

AN IMPORTANT component in food security is contingency planning for supply interruptions. Vermont, where I live, has a Farm to Plate program; many states have similar efforts. This has helped Vermont move from 5 percent to 13.9 percent in-state food consumption between 2010 and 2017. A caveat: This includes alcohol. Clearly, there’s a long way to go, craft brews notwithstanding.

According to Ellen Kahler, executive director of the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, even before this crisis there had been an uptick in New England discussions about possible supply disruptions—though she knows of no place that’s prepared. Food Solutions New England has articulated a vision for the region to provide 50 percent of its food by 2060. Enhancing regional sufficiency “will require state-by-state level planning,” she says. “All of this would shift if there were a national policy on food that wasn’t [geared to] large-scale subsidies on wheat and soy but that supported regional and local. Until that happens, we will lose smaller producers.”

While the nation’s food system is oriented toward mass production, small and medium-sized producers can be more agile. The commercial meat distribution network has streamlined its procurement system so “there’s no plan B for when things fall apart,” says American Grassfed Association’s executive director, Carrie Balkcom. She is helping stores connect with well-stocked smaller producers. Farmers and ranchers are supporting each other as dependable markets—restaurants, institutions, and farmers markets—shut down during the crisis. GrazeCart, developed by Seven Sons Farm in Indiana, shares training on online sales and marketing to help colleagues make the necessary “pivots.” It’s a chaotic moment when some small farms are overrun with orders while others are scrambling to find customers to replace those they’ve lost.

Across the country, small farmers are rallying to fill the breach. In Wichita, Kansas, WAVE, a popular restaurant and meeting place, hosts the online Funky Fresh Farmers Market to support local farmers, employ people, and get “fresh nutrient dense food to those in need.” Hosta Hill, a Berkshires farm specializing in fermented products, donates a jar of sauerkraut to a food bank for every two jars sold online. Farmers markets are going “drive-through” and restaurants are doing takeout. Nicola Williams says the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, is contracting with local restaurants to purchase food that is then delivered to vulnerable communities. The state has deemed farmers markets and farmstands “essential” business, she adds, noting the advantages of locally produced food in this time of COVID-19: “less miles, less touch points, less travel.”

More-sweeping policy changes are also out there, with some long-standing ideas finding new relevance. For example, John Ikerd considers lack of quality food a market failure. He proposes a “community food utility” model to resolve this—just as the Rural Electrification Association, a public utility, brought electricity to his family home in rural Missouri despite the fact that no one would make money on this.

He says community food utilities would serve local farmers, build social bonds, and provide healthier food, without increasing costs. This is because raw or minimally processed foods would be emphasized, and much of the cost is in processing and transport. He suggests they be organized as “vertical cooperatives,” connecting all parts of the local food chain: farmer, processor, distributor, retailer, and consumer.

Growing food is ultimately a matter of biology, not technology; a secure food program must consider how nature works.

Several groups propose COVID-19 stimulus packages that would restructure our food economy. The “Green Stimulus” proposes “reform[ing] agricultural subsidies so that federal support goes to small producers who make investments in their communities and the environment” and compensating farmers for building soil carbon. It also calls for “parity pricing,” which ensures a fair price for crops based on relative purchasing power and the costs involved in production.

Ten percent of the country’s farms receive three-quarters of agricultural subsidies. Through subsidies, taxpayer money is promoting the dominance of a few commodity crops and practices that lead to polluted water.

The federally funded crop insurance program actually discourages farmers from adopting environmentally friendly practices, as Gail Fuller found when he was denied insurance because he planted cover crops to protect and enrich the soil. He prevailed, but ultimately chose to forgo crop insurance.

Legislation that gives windfalls to the industrial food sector exacerbates fragility—particularly as Big Food is pushing toward more automation. Given the added stress of climate change, IATP’s Ben Lilliston says, “a more climate-resilient system includes more farmers on the land. We want to empower people who produce our food. How do we set up a farm system that doesn’t overproduce, builds soil health, and is climate resilient? We want to help farming communities have ownership, and make sure these are places people want to live—and not have rural areas as sacrifice zones.”

With weaknesses in our food networks made visible, we can use this opportunity to reform them. For instance, we can approach food policy and regulation from a standpoint of resilience. This would involve localizing the food system infrastructure to shorten supply chains and ensure that (1) products are closer to the communities that need and want them; and (2) perishables aren’t roving the world, potentially spreading diseases. There’s no reason for a head of romaine lettuce to travel hither and yon before gracing someone’s plate. We need to revisit farm subsidies that favor large players who may be shipping abroad or growing crops for biofuels or animal feed that only make sense in a global commodity system. Innovation comes from smaller farms. We should reward producers for providing quality food and stewarding the land, and facilitate pathways for people who want to farm.

Growing food is ultimately a matter of biology, not technology; a secure food program must consider how nature works. Regenerative agriculture is a suite of methods to produce food in a way that builds soil health and overall ecological function. Shifting to regenerative approaches will help us address many of our underlying problems, including polluted waterways, biodiversity loss, and languishing rural communities, as well as restore the climate regulation capacity of natural systems. Chemical inputs central to the agricultural status quo are needed primarily to compensate for lack of diversity—monocultures are by definition precarious; for every pest insect there are 1,700 beneficial insects—and by killing soil life and pollinators accelerate a loss of biodiversity. We destroy the ecology underlying food production at our peril.

As the virus throws so much into disarray, decisions made now will help determine the country’s capacity to feed itself. Greg Watson, director of policy and systems design at the Schumacher Center for a New Economics, says, “We can either come out on the other side to support small, local food systems or the industrial model.” To buffer against unpredictable events, he says it’s wise for communities to assess food resources and access: “You start local and then ask, what is it that we’re not able to meet locally or regionally?” This echoes the late author Jane Jacobs’s principle of generating wealth through “import replacement”: invigorating regional economies by producing what you have been buying. And what better way to create security and prosperity than through thriving place-based food economies?

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