Weak links

Food system’s weaknesses show need for something better

By Allen Williams
The Covid-19 pandemic has created significant upheaval across the world, and certainly right here in the U.S.

With the shelter-in-place orders, restaurants closing to inside dining, and schools and universities shutting down in-person education, the impact on agriculture and the food industries has been monumental.

A quote from philosopher Eric Hoffer has really challenged me during these stressful times: “In times of change, learners will inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”

The agriculture and food systems we have put in place over the past six decades — the systems that have made the industry so proud, the systems that appeared to function seamlessly — have been shown to have glaring shortcomings.

The problems
A number of weak links have been exposed, creating chaos among the consuming public. The pandemic triggered rounds of panic buying that quickly cleared grocery stores shelves of many items. First toilet paper, then other paper goods. Next to disappear were staple food items such as milk, meat, eggs, vegetables (first frozen, and then fresh), canned goods and bread.

For the first time in many people’s lives there were serious shortages of these food items on grocery store shelves across the entire U.S. Many feared we were running out of food.

We farmers know that was not the case. Instead it was a lack of ability to keep food from getting to the stores as fast as people were buying.

Transport issues
So the first weak link we will discuss is the transportation bottleneck. There are only so many trucks and drivers, and we cannot suddenly create more. They can transport only so much food across the U.S., so fast.

When consumers across the country make runs on stores, it is impossible for the transportation sector to keep up. When you consider that most food items have to be transported about 1,500 miles before reaching their final destination, it is easy to see why a pandemic can cause such a bottleneck.

Storage issues
The second weak link is a square footage issue with grocery stores, restaurants and institutional foodservice. The vast majority of retail grocery stores, restaurants and cafeterias have very limited space for dry goods and cold storage at their disposal.

Even if we could magically multiply trucks and drivers and they could deliver far more food faster, the businesses they are delivering to could not store it. During a “run” on their businesses, most have only enough storage capacity for three or four days of food.

Why is this the case? Because the food system we built has a “just-in-time” mentality. Grocery stores, restaurants and institutional foodservice have been trained to pick up a phone, place an order and have a truck arrive in the next day or two.

Entire food systems — from production, to processing, to sales, to storage capacity, to inventory management — have been built on this concept. It seemed like a beautiful and highly efficient system, and it is.

When it works. However, when things break down it becomes like a computer that no longer works. That computer quickly becomes a very expensive paperweight.

As of mid-March we had more than 8.1 billion lbs. of frozen food stocks in storage around the U.S. This did not count the fresh foods being produced and processed daily, so we were not in danger of running out of food anytime soon. We simply could not get that food transported and stored.

Processing issues
The third weak link is our massive processing plants. Again, these are models of efficiency and economies of scale.

When they are in operation. I knew it was simply a matter of time before they were struck with Covid-19 worker sickness and absences.

Most of the major meat packers have been impacted. JBS, Tyson, Cargill, Sanderson Farms, Smithfield and many others have seen plants shutting down, increased worker absence, and significant interruptions in their ability to process livestock and dairy products. Milk is being dumped, and fresh foods targeted for restaurants and institutions are being discarded.

Vegetables are rotting in the fields due to the processing bottlenecks and shortages of workers to harvest those crops. I watched a news segment on the millions of pounds of onions rotting in huge piles because they had no home. They were originally intended for restaurants and cafeterias — businesses that no longer operated.

Interestingly, meat sales increased at historic rates during March and into April. By the end of March, beef sales had increased 91% compared to March 2019.

Ground meats saw the biggest increases, with ground beef sales up 104%, ground turkey up 87%, ground chicken up 69%, ground pork up 89%, and even ground lamb up 33% compared to a year earlier. Fresh turkey sales increased 126%, while bison sales were up 123% and overall pork sales 101% due to a combination of panic buying and far more people eating at home.

Restaurant sales
Restaurant food sales across the U.S. have declined by more than 40%, while sales for dine-in restaurants have fallen more than 70%. This is also impacting the food distributors who deliver to those restaurants and cafeterias.

So even though there have been store shelves with not enough meat, milk and eggs, we are dumping those same items because of a broken food system. Believe it or not, it is hard to redirect to grocery stores those foods originally meant for the restaurant sector.

A flawed system
The simple fact is that we have had a flawed food system for quite some time. Our cheap transport system and global supply networks masked those flaws, at least until we had a pandemic. Everyone thought food would just “be there” whenever they wanted it.

With the food delivery system, it is now incredibly important that we start doing what we have been working on with our soils: building resilience.

This has to start with reducing our reliance on a global supply chain. Remember that almost all our major food processors are now global companies. They are not just “U.S.” companies.

Centralized food systems are far less attentive to what people need in local areas. When we create these national and global food chains, we are more vulnerable to pandemics, bio-terrorism, food safety issues and numerous other challenges.

On the contrary
We are seeing quite a different story on the other side of things. More consumers have discovered they can buy their food from local farmers or by placing internet orders with branded food programs.

Our surveys of direct marketers and branded food programs who work with us at Understanding Ag indicate that they have seen 350% to 1,000%-plus sales increases in the months of March and April.

Demand is such that many have sold as much in a single month as they usually do in a year. They find themselves rapidly running out of product, not having enough finished animals to harvest, and hitting their own processing bottlenecks.

Those who have benefited most have robust internet sales and shipping capabilities, and who can deliver to customers within a 100- to 200-mile radius.

A number of folks have been very innovative, such as creating “parking lot sales” set up so customers can drive through, place an order, pay and get the order brought to their vehicle. Direct marketers, branded programs and even food distributors have done this.

Some restaurants have re-invented themselves as local grocery stores. Food distributors who lost their restaurant business have turned to home delivery. Tough times force creativity and innovation.

Small and mid-sized producers and processors can be far more agile and responsive to local needs and demand shifts.

I love a recent quote from Judith Schwartz, Author of Water in Plain Sight and Cows Save the Planet: “Growing food is ultimately a matter of biology, not technology; a secure food program must consider how nature works”.

Can we capitalize?
So, the question is … have the tables turned? When the pandemic is finally over and lives return to a quasi-normal state, will consumers remember their local farmers and local and regional branded programs?

Can we capitalize on this emerging opportunity to rebuild our national food system, restore robust small and mid-sized processing, and provide consumers with a trustworthy food system that delivers healthy, nutrient-dense foods?

That is our call, and now is the time to act.

Dr. Allen Williams is president of Livestock Management Consultants, LLC, based in Starkville, Mississippi.