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FULL SHELVES? Keeping grocery store shelves full is apparently hard for a streamlined food system during a pandemic.

It is time to abandon the 'cheap food' approach

Closed processing plants, bottlenecked supply lines and empty shelves show a new cost to our very efficient food system.

There’s nothing like a global pandemic to bring forth all the weaknesses in any system. Since the 1930s, agriculture has pushed forward to boost yields to record levels, while processors worked to squeeze out any extra costs in the system. The result? We could brag that our 8-cents-on-the-dollar food cost was the cheapest in the world. But at what true cost?

No, I’m not talking about environmental impact. I’m talking about consumer-driven decisions financed by margin-hungry stakeholder groups that worked to winnow all the cost out of every part of the system. The result was a just-in-time marvel of food moving from farm to table more efficiently, frankly, than anywhere else in the world.

But this system kept working to be more efficient, cutting away at all the fat, and what we missed along the way was that some were cutting into muscle. Whether you’re talking about harvesting fresh cherries in Oregon or moving hogs through a processing facility, every possible cost was taken out. And what we have left is a just-in-time system that doesn’t work when any part of that system stalls.

Consumers like to complain about how much food costs. Farmers know they’re a small part of the final price of a box of cereal. The middlemen have long held sway on what consumers pay, often saying they can’t raise prices at the grocery store, and to maintain margin they need to figure out how to cut their costs.

That meant closing plants. A single beef packing plant in Nebraska has the capacity to produce, in one day, enough beef to feed 18 million people. You know? In agriculture, we all learned a long time ago that putting all your eggs in one basket may not be the best management choice.

Food system self-assessment needed

As we come through this long tunnel of COVID-19 — and I don’t know when we’ll actually be out — it’s time to start asking hard questions about our food system. The H-2A program needs a serious nonpartisan look to make sure workers can move as needed, safely and be well-paid. At the same time, the system has to work to protect the financial viability of the farms that employ those workers.

For processing, I’m not advocating breaking up big monopolies; that creates other kinds of problems. But perhaps those monopolies can look at their own production facilities and decide how to parse production in new ways — including slower lines to avoid future infections or other issues. Perhaps it means more packing plants, spreading out the flow to reduce the risk and get the food closer to the target market. Working conditions need a serious look in any part of agriculture, and if the answer is “We can’t afford it,” perhaps it’s time to look at what consumers expect for food prices.

Not being able to buy flour when I know there is a huge surplus of wheat is just plain silly to me. I realize demand went over the moon for shelter-in-place home bakers, but really? Days without good flour on the shelves?

When stores limit what you can buy. When consumers fear any ability to get food. Perhaps they’ll be more receptive to paying 10 cents on the dollar to eat. That 25% boost, if we can get some of it to farmers, could make all the difference.

There are tough conversations ahead. We need to have them without shouting. Because all of us want to feed the world. We’re producing enough. Now all the players need to get their acts together to solve these issues.

Comments? Questions? Email willie.vogt@farmprogress.com.

 

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