From wasted food, to the exploitation of farmworkers, the Covid-19 pandemic has made it painfully clear that this country’s food system must be changed. Politicians must pass further stimulus legislation that includes policy to reform our inflexible, consolidated food system to prepare for future crises.
Consider the many problems in the meat industry. Workers ill with Covid caused temporary processing facility closures, putting our nation’s meat supply in jeopardy. President Trump forced meatpacking plants to re-open by executive order, yet, further disruptions are likely. Roughly half of those plant workers are immigrants, living at or below the poverty line. Forced to return to work, they are still at risk of getting sick.
Because these plants could not shift production to the retail market when restaurants, schools, and hotels closed, product could not move. These supply chain bottlenecks caused farmer prices to fall, even as processor profits rose.
And cattle ranchers were not the only farmers affected, as dairy farmers were told to dump milk, and hog and poultry producers, to euthanize their animals. Vegetable growers were forced to plow under their crops. Desperately needed food is wasted while prices at the grocery store rise because retailers cash in on supply chain breakdowns.
For farmworkers, Covid-19 has made an already oppressive food system even worse.
Before the pandemic hit, close to 3 million farmworkers who labor on the larger operations in this country already struggled. Most lived in poverty, earning between $15,000 to $18,000 a year. Around 75% of farmworkers lack legal status, which means that they also live in fear of deportation.
Now, farmworkers face the risk contracting Covid-19. In California’s Monterey county, around 40% of the people who have contracted the virus are the same people who labor in the fields.
Our government’s response? Pay farmworkers less.
Other failed initiatives include the USDA’s decision to allocate $16 billion in direct payments to farmers, as well as creating the ‘Farmers to Families Box’ program – where suppliers, with larger operations having a seeming advantage, sell their produce to the government for distribution at food banks.
Both initiatives don’t address our crisis in agriculture. Direct payments mirror past trade deal mitigation payments, wherein larger operations and multinational agribusiness firms such as JBS took advantage. As the payments went out, farm bankruptcies hit an eight-year high.
To really address the failures of the food system – and to position ourselves to adequately face the next crisis, we must ensure fair farm prices, empower agricultural workers and invest in rural infrastructure.
Farmworkers, in addition to citizenship, must be allowed to organize without fear of reprisal from their employer. Currently, only California guarantees this right because the National Labor Relations Act excludes rural workers from the right to unionize. The Farm Workforce Modernization Act includes citizenship for farmworkers, still, efforts should go further by allowing workers the right to organize.
Farmworkers should also have the chance to become farmers. Since 2008, through the Farm Service Agency’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP), over $162 billion has been provided to former farmworkers, as well as women, veterans and Native Americans to practice small-scale agriculture. Doubling, or tripling the resources dedicated to this program could help create a more localized food system and put more farmers on the land.
Still, all farmers need fair markets and prices. The government must, as it has in the past, establish reserves for grains and other products. Counter-cyclical government loans – a part of previous Farm Bills – should allow farmers to sell their produce either on the market, or into the reserves, with a floor price negotiated between farmers, processors, and retailers. Reserves would improve what farmers are paid, prevent food shortages and stabilize consumer prices.
Investing in smaller local processing facilities – for beef, dairy, as well as fruits and vegetables – would also strengthen markets and make the supply chain flexible. This should include brick and mortar facilities, as well as mobile facilities that can travel from farm to farm, giving farmers options for sales and consumers more options on how they buy.
Rural areas are also in desperate need of improved communications and transportation infrastructure. The Post Office provides rural residents affordable access to the rest of the world and its viability must be ensured. Similarly, broadband internet access must be made available to everyone. And if farmers are to move their product, significant resources must be spent on improving roads, dams, bridges and railroads.
The effects of the COV-19 pandemic have shown that large processors cannot meet the challenges of a crisis. A less consolidated food system that is more flexible, and supportive of farmers and workers will better meet future challenges. Upcoming stimulus plans must address our food system, improving it for the long term. If they do, then we might be ready for the next challenge.
Jim Goodman is an emeritus organic dairy farmer from Wonewoc, Wisconsin, and Anthony Pahnke is the vice president of the Family Farm Defenders and assistant professor of international relations at San Francisco State University. Jim can be reached at email@example.com and Anthony at firstname.lastname@example.org