In good company with many industries, U.S. agriculture is facing one of its biggest crises since the Great Depression of 90 years ago. The new coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has brought with it a seemingly endless series of jolts and unintended shifts to our food chain, endangering the reliability of supply from the American farm sector.
The meat sector has been brutally hit. Producers began culling herds when restaurants started to close in late March. The beef and pork markets have been further disrupted by the closure of more than a dozen processing plants across North America – most owned by some the world’s largest meat producers like Smithfield Foods Inc, Cargill Inc, JBS USA and Tyson Foods Inc. – due to significant COVID-19 outbreaks among workers.
About half of all beef and pork products are sold to restaurants, which have been mostly closed for weeks due to shutdown orders prompted by the pandemic. Beef processing capacity is down by more than 10 percent and pork by as much as 25 percent, industry leaders say.
Another prominent example of the pandemic’s harsh and volatile impact on the nation’s farmers and others in the food supply chain are the disruptions occurring in the dairy industry. Producers have been dumping millions of gallons of milk over the past month. With the sudden drop in the wholesale, food-service market resulting from the closure of schools and restaurants, dairy processing plants have yet to catch up with the packaging and logistical changes that must come with a massive shift in demand for dairy products at grocery stores and other retail outlets.
The fresh fruit and vegetable sector is also reeling from losses attributable to the pandemic. Florida produce growers were reporting losses of more than $520 million thus far this season, while the nation’s potato growers say their $4-billion industry has been devastated, given that 60 percent of their market is in a food service industry that has been virtually shut down for a month. USDA announced April 17 a $2.7-billion financial support package targeting the fruit and vegetable sector. That support is divided, with $2.1 billion allocated for direct payments to growers and $100 million per month set aside in each of the next six months for purchasing produce.
At the global level, the number of people suffering from hunger and malnutrition is rising. As documented in the fourth annual Global Report on Food Crises (GRFC 2020), in the 55 countries covered by the survey, 135 million people were classified as being in the “crisis or worse” category; 183 million were classified as “experiencing stressed conditions”; 75 million children were stunted and another 17 million were suffering from wasting. These tragic conditions, fueled by conflict, climate shocks and poor economic activity, will likely deepen as the full impact of the global pandemic is realized. In response, UN Secretary General António Guteres has issued an urgent call to action to address the co-joined food security, public health and environmental challenges the world is facing.
As challenging as these current conditions are, they do create opportunities to underscore the critical role agriculture plays in not only ensuring a healthy food supply, but also in making the world a better place to live.
In the coming weeks and months, SfL will be proactively advocating for strategic pathways that enable all forms and scales of agriculture to:
- Reduce hunger and improve nutrition by supporting the production of fruits, vegetables, animal proteins and food-grade grains for human consumption.
- Create jobs and generate economic growth by diversifying and sustainably intensifying production and processing of food, feed, ﬁber, and renewable energy.
- Augment ecosystems services to improve the environment, enhance the resilience of agricultural and forested landscapes and improve the farmer’s bottom line under a changing and uncertain climate.
To achieve these outcomes, transformational change will be required. The policies of the past are already failing to meet the unprecedented needs and challenges of today – let alone tomorrow. To sustainably intensify production, enhance resilience to climate and other shocks, and move the world towards achieving global sustainable development goals, we need to innovate.
Just a few examples of such innovations include: implementing landscape scale solutions and multi-stakeholder partnerships; harmonizing policy frameworks and reducing or eliminating overlapping and contradictory regulations; rewarding farmers, ranchers and foresters for the ecosystem services they produce; energizing and better coordinating research; transforming and modernizing information networks; and committing to mechanisms and polices that benefit all scales of production and provide profitable agricultural livelihoods.
SfL genuinely appreciates the difficult job those in our nation’s agriculture sector are taking on, especially while burdened with our current food chain difficulties. Even in the midst of today’s mayhem, they continue to provide essential water quality benefits and carbon sequestration services along with the food we eat. It is with that broad sense of appreciation that SfL pursues its goal: By 2030, America’s farms, ranches and forests will be at the forefront of resolving food system, energy, environmental and climate challenges, and achieving global sustainable development goals.