At the risk of sounding flippant, let me say perhaps the Coronavirus is a blessing in disguise as it reveals a major vulnerability in our nation’s food supply chain. The consolidation of growers and producers has created bottlenecks which can lead to food shortages, euthanization of farm animals, and food insecurity. Without getting into “the weeds” of economics, supply and demand, and safety regulations, let me attempt to explain why this is occurring.
Mass production of our food has become centralized into a handful of companies. Enter COVID-19 and the economy grinding to a halt. Stay-at-home orders are issued and food processing businesses across the country close their doors due to infections among some of their approximately 880,000 workers. The thing is fruits, vegetables, and farm animals do not stop growing just because the world is under quarantine. One might ask, “Well, why can’t the food just stay on the farms a bit longer?”
If you have ever grown a garden, you know that when the crop is ready to be harvested, it is ready! There is no waiting around. The crops needs to be harvested and eaten or processed for later usage. When growing is consolidated into the hands of large companies and their workers are not available to perform the harvest or the processing plants are not operational, the fruits and vegetables will likely rot in the fields.
Meat producers have their own problems with delays. Their processing industry (slaughter houses) have become centralized in a handful of companies and those companies have standardized their processes. For example, they require a certain weight of an animal for the machinery to operate efficiently. If the animals are not taken to market in a timely fashion, because of say an epidemic, this creates a bottleneck in the supply chain. As the producers wait for the packing houses to come back online, the animals they are currently raising will become too large for the machinery. Thus, the packing houses will not accept them. Add to the situation, these handful of large processing companies have forced smaller local processors out of the business due to inefficiencies of operation precisely because they are smaller.
In the United States, roughly 75% of all pork is processed by four companies. And roughly 60% of all carrots are grown by one company. Fortunately, here in Appalachia de-centralized and more local farm-to-table independent operations are encouraged and supported by groups like Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, Buncombe Country Farmland Preservation Program, and Mountain Valleys Resource Conservation and Development.
We have a great deal for which to be thankful. However, local independent farmers cannot feed the entire community. There simply are not enough people who have the knowledge and energy and can afford to do so. The entire food supply business model needs to be re-envisioned with less consolidation which, of course, means all of our food will cost more. Our priorities need to be reassessed. Food supplies should be local to the area across the entire world. Just my thoughts of the day . . .
And yes, we have “weeds” in the orchard and “weeds” in the blueberries! Mowing them down is simply not a priority at this time of the year!