Coronavirus & America’s Food Security
Short & Long Term Implications
Regardless of their social distancing, shelter-in-place, self isolation, or any other COVID-19 induced lockdowns, Americans must continue to eat. Empty grocery store shelves due to consumer hoarding behavior have been a minor annoyance for most families. Having traveled to a number of countries across the African continent including places like Somalia and seen hungry people first hand, I am more concerned about our food security during this ongoing crisis.
Food security is defined in terms of the availability of food and the ability of people to access it. Access to food that should be readily available can be hampered by either physical means or affordability.
Though food insecurity can be caused by a lack of food production from droughts or infestations, they are exacerbated by war or civil unrest, and sometimes contribute to those conditions. In recent history, most famines have been manmade. Recent conflicts in Syria and Yemen have seen food weaponized to be used as a tool to control populations. High food prices were a significant contributor to the Arab Spring that begun in 2010 resulted in numerous regime changes and the deaths of tens of thousands of people.
In the course of my job, I am fortunate to have the opportunity to speak to farmers all across the country who produce a variety of agricultural goods using various methods. What follows are my observations on the near and long term implications of COVID-19 on America’s food security and food system.
Shipping costs are rising rapidly across the country, which will eventually trickle down into more expensive consumer staples. As of this writing, many grocery shelves are largely empty of all types of meat. Foreign imports have largely shut down based on recent disruptions to the global supply chain, thereby increasing demand further for domestically produced beef. Our partners in the grass-fed cattle business believe that over the long-term, we will see an increase in domestic cattle prices as the country moves toward domestic sources of production and consumers demand a more transparent supply chain. These supply chain disruptions could be magnified by hyperinflation caused by the massive amounts of money the Fed is pumping into the economy.
The vast majority of the leafy greens and other vegetables consumed in the United States are produced in California in its year round growing climate. Much of this agricultural production depends on migrant farmworkers, many of whom travel seasonally from Mexico. The Farm Bureau and Department of Agriculture are working with the State Department to ensure that H-2A visas required for these workers are processed despite the closure of the U.S. Embassy and consulates in Mexico, but it’s entirely possible that these issues could cause disruptions in the planting season.
Americans take for granted our globalized food economy where exotic fruits and vegetables can be imported from around the world and available year-round. There is a reason our ancestors subsisted on locally grown “meat and potatoes.” Our highly fragmented and specialized diets will be the first thing to go as this crisis persists.
This pandemic is revealing a number of weaknesses in America’s globalized food system and just-in-time, Six Sigma supply chains. Future lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic will provide an opportunity to create more robust and resilient systems and ensure America’s food security for the long term.
America’s agriculture must become more decentralized to survive future Black Swan events to the economy. The best way to shift vegetable production away from concentrated areas to meet consumer needs is through controlled environment agriculture, allowing food to be grown sustainably in climates where it normally will not. Domestic indoor farming operations will also help to deglobalize our food system and keep a diversified American food economy.
Plant-based meats have been all the rage with the institutional investment community, but they rely on a large number of components and processes that are supported by a complex supply chain. For example, the Impossible Burger is made from 21 different ingredients and additives originating from a large number of geographically disbursed farms and factories. Despite the above-mentioned impact to the livestock markets, simpler sources of animal-based protein may more reliable in times of crisis.
More and more US farmers are converting to organic production to meet the consumer demand that is largely met from offshore imports; however these conversions take time and capital. Continued investments into sustainable and regenerative agriculture will allow domestic production to adjust to meet evolving food preferences, environmental concerns, and maintain secure, affordable food for all Americans.