Food in a time of crisis: what will we learn from this?


April 2, 2020

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Someday soon, we all hope and pray, the pandemic will begin to ease and life will return to some form of normalcy. After a crisis, there are things that return to pre-crisis conditions but many things are changed. One of those may very well be how we all think about food and how it is produced, distributed and sold. It is almost certain that new concerns about food security, both on the local and national level, will arise and with it an improved policy climate for farmers.

When basic assumptions of everyday life begin to be challenged, such as whether we can leave our homes and under what conditions, we start thinking about what we have, what we need and what would happen if we couldn’t get what we need. Toilet paper seems to have become the icon for this evaluation of essentials. Why would so many rush to the stores to load up on what surely must be a year’s supply or more of tp? Mob mentality is definitely at work here with stories of empty shelves driving even those with more than adequate supplies to wait in early morning lines for a shot at the possibility of a few rolls re-stocked overnight.

Panic buying is affecting food as well, with many stores displaying eerily empty shelves and signs in nearly every aisle indicating which items were subject to rationing. But, to the surprise and gratitude of many consumers, most of those items kept coming back. There never was a serious risk of food shortages in the US and empty shelves had far more to do with hoarding and panic buying than disruptions in our food system. Retailers may also contribute: dairy farmers express amazement that while dairy prices head for record lows presumably on low demand Walmart and other grocery stores have signs limiting sales of milk to one container per customer.

Buying patterns have changed and some farms are aided by the changes while others face increasingly uncertain futures depending in part on how long the crisis remains. Dairy prices, mentioned above, have gone into steep decline. Buoyed in late 2019 and early 2020 by solid increases after five years of severely depressed global milk prices, remaining farmers had regained some optimism. Farm consolidation, where larger farms bought out smaller ones, has accelerated in the last few years because of the serious economic problems. In 2003 there were about 70,000 dairy farms in the nation. By 2019 that number had been cut in half, to about 34,000. Now, with a sharp drop in milk prices caused by the disruption of the pandemic, we likely will see far more dairy farms close down in 2020. Still, milk production in Washington state and the nation remains strong because of the continuing increases in efficiency of the remaining farms.

While dairies are struggling with the pandemic impacts, other farms are seeing sharp upticks in sales. The Washington Tree Fruit Association, the industry group of the state’s large apple and fruit growers, reports record sales of apples in the past few weeks. Other fruit growers including those providing the nation’s supply of frozen raspberries and blueberries also report strong and possibly record sales. Egg prices are surging, and news outlets report that chick sales have gone through the roof as urban “farmers” look to provide their own eggs and meat. Lamb and beef prices are in free fall, especially higher quality cuts, as restaurants and cruise lines shut down. We hear that asparagus farmers in California are having to plow ripe crops into the ground and potato farmers in Eastern Washington are significantly reducing the acreage for this year’s crop.

Many of the changes in demand reflect how the normal distribution of food has been disrupted. For example, restaurants have become a major option for many citizens, even more so in our cities. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that Americans now spend half of their food budget eating out. According to Nielsen this is a 94% increase in just six years. Cruising has also become a very popular vacation option, particularly among an aging population. Food purchases today reflect the reality that quarantining requires far more meal preparation at home. The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization reports that since the Covid-19 virus hit: “In Italy demand for flour increased by 80%, canned meat by 60%, canned beans by 55%, and tomato sauce by 22%. These trends lead to difficulties to sell produce, loss of perishable produce and loss of income [for some farmers].”

The loss of farmer’s markets in some locations as an option for selling farm products has been very harmful for the great many small farms across the nation. Seattle and Los Angeles shut down farmers markets in the cities but at least some outside major urban areas may remain open. Those farmers who already were selling directly to consumers through programs such as CSA — Community Supported Agriculture — are seeing a significant uptick in sales according to Politico.

How will all this affect our food system during the uncertain length of time of quarantine and the longer term future? Washington state and US farms will without question continue to operate to produce the nation’s food supply. At this point, the severe drop in milk prices means that those without crop insurance face a very uncertain future. In Washington state we face the strong potential of loss of many of the remaining multi-generation farms. Each loss represents a deep human tragedy. The primary concerns other than the product or market-specific concerns have to do with the breakdown of distribution logistics or severe labor shortages. When Washington state was at the epicenter of the virus some farmers reported that they were facing difficulty in shipping products because of the reluctance of truck drivers to enter the state. Illnesses, quarantine and the impact on families such as childcare are likely reducing the availability of employees needed to maintain a healthy transportation system.

Because much of our nation’s food supply has entered the US from foreign countries through ports and border crossings, the disruption in global supply chains is having and will have a significant impact on the availability of certain foods. In 2018 the New York Times reported that well over 50% of our fresh fruit came from foreign farms and over one third of our fresh vegetables did as well. The Italian data on shifting food demand suggests that consumers are buying more non-perishable items but it is possible that US farmers producing fresh fruits and vegetables will benefit from the global supply chain challenges as logistics problems and fears of foreign food rise. Yet, as seen from early indications from fresh vegetable growers including asparagus and potatoes, the future is far from certain. Data from the UN’s FAO show sharply declining futures in wheat, maize (corn) and soybeans. Corn farmers, who provide corn for ethanol production, are also hit by impacts on ethanol refining.

The shortage of labor is one of the greatest concerns for the immediate as well as long term future of our farms. US farmers have been facing significant labor shortages ever since the recession of 2008. The number of undocumented workers has steadily declined since then for both economic and political reasons. The loss of output to US farms because of labor shortage was estimated at $3 billion a year or so ago and in Washington state we are aware of specific farms which have had to let quality food rot in the fields because of the shortage of farm employees to harvest crops.

A major way of reducing the labor shortage has been through the H2-A or guest worker program. This is a federal program that grants workers from foreign countries, primarily Mexico, to secure a legal visa to work for a season on US farms. In 2020 an estimated 250,000 guest workers were needed on US farms. Restrictions on international travel may very well hinder farms from having access to the needed workers. Guest workers already have extensive health and safety protections under the law and farmers must provide free transportation, free government-inspected housing, and other important benefits. But safety and health concerns for these workers mean that farmers are adding significant additional costs to protect their valuable workers against illness. It’s a tragedy that farm worker unions are aggressively pushing political agendas in this time of crisis, including calls to stop the guest worker program during this crisis. Sadly, they work to create a false impression of farmers’ treatment of farm employees including suggesting that farmers can’t be trusted to do their best to protect the health and safety of employees. Too many, including these groups, believe that this crisis provides an opportunity to push political agendas, even when those are obviously harmful to the public interest.

On April 2 the New York Times published a story on how undocumented farm workers who face continual fears of deportation are now considered “essential” workers. Farmers have always known these workers, like the documented domestic workers and more recently guest workers, are essential not just to farmer but to our nation. Perhaps one positive to come out of this is for more to recognize that these are essential not just during a pandemic crisis, but all the time. The Farmworker Modernization Act of 2019, passed by the House and awaiting vote by the Senate, would greatly help these workers and farmers.

As our families and fellow citizens remain home under quarantine, there is time to think through the implications of this massive reset button. One of those must certainly be what this means for food security. There has been far more interest in locally produced food in the last few years because of a reaction against “industrial agriculture,” the related concern of knowing where food comes from and how it is produced, and the fact that food has become more than a food. For many it is like buying a Prius or Leaf: a symbol that reveals personal values related to the environment and health.

But, during and following this crisis many must also be thinking about food security. Locally produced food means food security as perhaps more are coming to understand. While much of the produce from our farms is distributed far and wide, if need be at least some can be diverted to help keep our local communities fed. In fact, farmers are working with food security groups to identify how they can help ensure a steady supply for local food banks.

As Representative Dan Newhouse has pointed out “food security is national security.” The integrated nature of global commerce has and will be a discussion point for years to come. The information that at least 95% of ibuprofen (Advil) comes from China along with high percentages of other important pharmaceuticals caught a lot of us by surprise and added to worries. What if these drugs were withheld as China supposedly threatened to do in the wake of the virus being considered the “China virus”? It is to be expected that political pressure will increase to limit such exposure. More than just the possibility of “weaponizing” critical exports, consumers with fears highlighted by the virus may also question whether or not packages or products from other countries might carry pathogens they would rather avoid.

What about food imports? The trend toward globalization of our food supply has been accelerating in recent years. This is especially true of fresh fruits and vegetables as one benefit of globalization has been the availability of fresh produce out of season in local markets. But, there are little known consequences. Those concerned about pesticides — in other words anyone choosing organic products — are likely unaware that the FDA reports imported food is five times more likely to have pesticide residues above the US limits than domestic foods. A significant number of shipments from foreign producers marked as “organic” prove to be falsely identified to maximize profits with only some of those caught by the FDA. And the Centers for Disease Control reports that food borne illnesses have increased at the same pace as imported food. There is little question that US produced food is the safest, healthiest, most environmentally sustainable, most protective of farm employees AND the most efficiently produced in the world.

Efficiency of farm production results in the comparatively very low prices we consumers pay for our food today. Improved genetics have enabled a near miraculous increase in the amount of milk each milk cow produces in the US. A cow in 2020 produces over ten times the amount of milk of its ancestor in 1900, and just in the past 10 years milk production per cow has increased 13%. This means that we have far fewer cows producing far more milk. That also means the environmental impact is far, far less than before. Dairy uses about 65% less water than fifty years ago per milk produced, and cows in India produce about nine times more greenhouse gas per gallon of milk produced than US cows. While dairy may have seen the greatest increases in efficiency and productivity, that story is told for almost all farm products.

Ironically, it is this vast increase in productivity that serves as perhaps the greatest threat to the future of US farmers. Efficiency is made possible by adopting methods that reduce labor and input costs while increasing output. This results in “industrialization” of farming. That strikes a lot of people, especially our environmentally and socially conscious younger people, as wrong. Industrial agriculture and “factory farming” have become slurs and emotion-laden activist accusations aimed at revolutionizing our food system. While strong on accusations of what is wrong, those uncomfortable with current farming seem to be short on reasonable suggestions as to how to replace it while maintaining safety, quality, sustainability and low price. The very system that has produced the safest, healthiest, most sustainable and least expensive food system in the world is under attack on multiple fronts with no suggested alternatives other than to let foreign farmers produce our food. Some have suggested all farms should sell through farmers markets only but that is unreasonable as the high cost of products in farmers markets show as well as the impossibility of feeding the world of 8 billion and more through this channel.

It is another wonder of modern farming that farmers for the most part have been able to survive despite the steady increase in regulations and laws affecting farming. There is good reason for many of the regulations and associated increased costs. Many are aimed at protecting our water, air, and environment. Others are there to ensure the safety and well being of farm workers, particularly the domestic and guest workers who work on a seasonal basis. Still more are there to make certain that our food is safe and healthy. When it comes to labor, for example, guest workers coming to the US from Mexico for a three or four month season will earn in that time what would take many years to earn on Mexican farms. The mandatory minimum wage for guest workers in Washington state in 2020 is $15.83 per hour, but most earn considerably more than that through incentive pay. The minimum wage in Mexico is $.79 per hour and with little enforcement it may well be that pay is even less. Worker protections, such as mandatory rest breaks, are either far less or non-existent. But that 20 to 30 times variance also means that US farms are at a severe disadvantage in labor costs. It is one reason why mechanization is so crucial to the survival of many farms. Trade laws do not adequately reflect the vast difference in cost of labor let alone the environmental, worker protection and food safety regulations that all add significantly to the cost and burdens of US farmers.

The question is not if these laws and regulations are good and valuable. Many are, but others are proposed or implemented by those far from our farms who seek to add these for their own political gain. The question instead is how are US farms to survive if these trends continue and what does that mean for the future of food in the US?

Right now the public attention is focused on the tragedy unfolding in our health care facilities and communities. We continue to trek to our grocery stores and are grateful to find the shelves, empty in places, but for the most part containing the food we need to survive and thrive. We will once again take things for granted because taking essential blessings and benefits for granted is what we do when we are not focused on our worries. But, perhaps, through this situation we will have a better understanding of the value of our farms and farm employees. We will take the time to learn what is needed for food security for our communities and nation. We will stand with farmers when they express concerns about political ideas and agendas that will not advance sustainability or improvements in our food system but merely satisfy political opportunism. If that happens, it will be one of hopefully many positive outcomes of an otherwise fearful and dismal time.

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Gerald Baron is the Executive Director of Save Family Farming, a Washington state farm advocacy organization.

Husband, father, grandfather, semi-retired, farm advocate, author, communicator. Deeply curious about science, nature, spirit and history.

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