How Covid-19 is Highlighting Fatal Flaws in Food Supply Chains

The U.N. World Food Program has found that the COVID-19 pandemic could double the number of people facing food crises to 265 million by the end of 2020. The pandemic has resulted in recent waves of unemployment and disruptions to the food supply-chain such as trade restrictions, labor shortages and the closure of public markets. Many governments have responded with economic stimulus packages and additional financial assistance to those struggling with food insecurity. Yet economic assistance alone does little to change the underlying issues inherent to the nature of global food supply-chains.

The problem is not a lack of supply, it’s a problem of distribution and supply chain management. Farmers across the U.S. are sitting on produce they can’t sell, dumping thousands of gallons of milk into lagoons and burying tons of onions in ditches, reports the New York Times. Ryan Cranney, operator of Cranney Farms in Idaho, tells NPR that he currently has about $6 million of potatoes in storage as the restaurants he usually supplies have cancelled their orders and selling to grocery stores would require major changes to his operations.

So why can’t farmers that were selling to restaurants just sell to grocery stores or food banks instead? The reason is that many farmers have tailored their production for either commercial or retail sales. A farmer that was selling to restaurants, for example, would need to package their produce differently in order to sell to grocery stores. Furthermore, as people get more of their food from grocery stores and less from restaurants, the overall demand for certain foods, like onions, has changed. Simply put, people are more likely to eat onion rings at restaurants than they are at home.

Even prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, overproduction and waste was a built-in part of our food system.  The U.S. Farm Bill — the primary piece of legislation that shaped our agricultural system —  is largely based on subsidies for commodity crops, which was critical during WWII to keep farmers from flooding the market and to create surpluses that could be stored away. In the 1980s, big food processors lobbied to get rid of these regulatory subsidies to maximize the amount of crops produced, arguing that increased production would fuel economic growth. This set the stage for the “get big or get out” policy that has come to dominate our food and farming systems since. De-regulation and subsidies have resulted in a self-perpetuating cycle of food and crop waste that rewards Big Food corporations and bankrupts small farmers.

Another factor disrupting food supply-chains is how the Covid-19 pandemic is impacting all the steps between farm and consumer: international trade is restricted and processing plants are facing shutdown.

Over the last half century, food supply-chains around the world have become increasingly globalized as more corporate middlemen have wedged their way in between farmer and consumer. Since the 1990s, international food trade has increased almost fivefold and almost a quarter of food produced crosses an international border. Not only do more farmers specialize in one product, entire countries have also specialized to stay competitive in the global market. Many countries around the world are net food importers and face shortages due to current trade restrictions. The U.S. imports only about 15% of its overall food supply, yet grocery store shelves across the country still lie periodically empty, food banks are struggling to keep up with demand, and the number of food insecure people is likely to rise.

As farmers become further removed from the communities they serve, the food supply-chain becomes more vulnerable to interruptions, something that has become evident amidst the Covid-19 pandemic. Meatpacking and other food processing plants across the U.S. have become hotspots for the spread of the Coronavirus and face shutdown. At the expense of plant workers health and safety, the White House has issued an executive order for meatpacking plants to remain open in order to keep the food supply going.

Much of the government assistance intended to help the struggling farm industry has gone to support large corporations rather than small farmers. In response to rising food insecurity, the USDA is giving states greater flexibility to expand SNAP, WIC, and school meal programs. While this is a necessary measure to ensure that the large numbers of newly unemployed people can continue to access food, it arguably does little to address the kinds of structural issues that cause mass amounts of produce to go to waste while people go hungry. In accordance with shelter-in-place recommendations, many are opting to use SNAP to acquire food online. Currently, the online food retailers accepting SNAP are limited to major corporations like Walmart and Amazon. Senator Kristen Gillibrand is currently introducing the Food Bank Access to Farm Fresh Produce Act, which would provide food banks with funding to purchase produce directly from local farmers, cutting out the corporate middle man. This is a necessary step towards diverting produce from the landfill to the growing number of food insecure people that need it, while also initiating a more direct food supply chain practice that leaves more money in the pockets of farmers.

Across the world, local markets are closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, grocery stores are experiencing bottlenecks in acquiring product and the cost of food is increasing. Yet it is essential that we get farmers’ produce directly to the communities that need it in order to provide people with healthy and nutritious food. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs, in which farmers sell farm boxes directly to restaurants and individuals, are becoming more popular. In the wake of the pandemic, CSA subscriptions have soared as consumers become aware of the fragility of the food supply-chain. By shortening the supply chain and putting food producers directly in connection with consumers empowers food chain workers and reduces the possibility for disruptions.

The Covid-19 crisis is only highlighting issues of fragility associated with economies of agglomeration that define our global food supply-chains. Not only is the current model very vulnerable to external shocks and pressures, it also forces farmers to take on risks, overproduce and bear the brunt of the losses when there are changes in demand. We need to shift to a food system that prioritizes local and regional food supply and distribution, which is more responsive to the day-to-day demands and needs of communities. Perhaps as the flaws of our global food system and supply-chain are exposed during this pandemic, we can collectively call for reinvestment – through public policy, consumer support and legislation – in our local and regional food and farm economies to ensure a just, hunger free future.




Alex Roth