Kawamura, Vilsack Underscore Food and Ag System’s Versatility

June 26, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has dealt some blows to the U.S. food and agriculture system, but two of the food sector’s leading voices argue that the crisis is prompting the industry to reexamine how it does business and how it can make the changes needed.

Solutions from the Land Chair A.G. Kawamura and former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently shared their views during a webinar sponsored by the National Academies of Science’s Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources (BANR), “Perspectives on COVID-19 and the Food and Agriculture System.”

Kawamura is an urban grower and shipper in California, where he served for eight years as the head of the state’s Department of Food and Agriculture. In his words, the pandemic has been quite challenging, but the response mounted by the sector on every scale – globally, within the United States, within the states themselves, as well as within the industry – has been “quite remarkable.”

Kawamura asserted that the strength of the ag and food industry has been its resilience, citing a variety of “terrific stories of how (growers) have found different pathways to get food to those that need it.”

He noted as examples the widening of farmers market accessibility and sales, cattlemen experiencing their biggest run of business ever through direct sales to consumers, the growth and strength of the food banks trade, and the escalation of online delivery, which offers new methods of food distribution. The ag and food sector’s response to the “food desert crisis” being experienced in the nation due to the outbreak is demonstrating the industry’s determination to find new means of getting foods to markets, adding that “innovative collaborations are showing how we can make this happen.”

Vilsack, now the CEO and president of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, cited the severity of the pandemic’s effect on the meatpacking industry, noting that shutting down two or three processing plants “devastated” the hog industry. He said precautions could have been taken early on, such as slowing the lines and implementing better spacing between workers.

But he also said that meatpackers are now evaluating whether their processing systems need new ideas, like developing smaller facilities to increase resilience. Vilsack said recent events have shown the necessity of this industry rethinking the way things are being done. “The time has come to consider resiliency instead of efficiency,” he said.

Vilsack also asserted that the coronavirus has allowed the industry to take a critical look at the food system and to recognize that “despite its efficiency, despite the affordability, and despite, for the most part, its accessibility, we have a system that is not as brilliant as it needs to be…in the face of a national crisis.”

Kawamura also cited the scope of the current crisis as being particularly troublesome. He said that those in agriculture live with disruption – citing as examples a hurricane in Florida or a drought in California – and still find ways to come back. “But you’re never prepared for a worldwide shutdown,” he added.

He said that the crisis is giving policy makers a tremendous opportunity to reassess what our food system is and appreciate its strength. But much of the discussion on Capitol Hill about future legislative initiatives encompasses the need to address U.S. infrastructure. That includes taking on out-of-date, underfunded transportation system and a lack of available labor that hinder agriculture production. Those initiatives should also advance the development of technology, which in turn encourages growth in the ag sector.

Vilsack said the food and agriculture system should be given the same priority in Washington that lawmakers give the nation’s defense, suggesting the sector should receive commensurate federal funding.

The now co-joined mega-challenges of our times – food and nutrition security, public health, improved livelihoods, equity and justice, environmental degradation and climate change – present fresh opportunities for agriculture to deliver solutions to complex and integrated problems facing the world. Now is the time for policy makers to enable farmers, ranchers and foresters across the world to deliver high value solutions to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These same policy makers would do well to heed A.G.’s advice: “You cannot accomplish SDGs if agriculture is not doing well.”

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