Crises tend to expose pre-existing societal malfunctions, and the Covid-19 pandemic has provided a bleak view into our political and economic soul. This March and April, even as an astounding 30 million Americans plunged into unemployment and food bank needs soared, farmers across the US destroyed heartbreaking amounts of food to stem mounting financial losses.
In scenes reminiscent of the Great Depression, dairy farmers dumped lakes of fresh cow’s milk (3.7m gallons a day in early April, now about 1.5 million per day), hog and chicken farmers aborted piglets and euthanized hens by the thousands, and crop growers plowed acres of vegetables into the ground as the nation’s brittle and anarchic food supply chain began to snap and crumble.
After delays and reports of concealing worker complaints, meatpacking plants that slaughter and process hundreds of thousands of animals a day ground to a halt as coronavirus cases spread like wildfire among workers packed tightly together on dizzyingly fast assembly lines.
Meanwhile, immigrant farmworkers toiled in the eye of the coronavirus storm, working and living in crowded dangerous conditions at poverty wages; at one Washington state orchard, half the workers tested positive for Covid-19. Yet many of these hardest working of Americans were deprived of economic relief, as they are undocumented. Advocates report more farmworkers showing up at food banks – and some unable to access food aid because they can’t afford the gas to get there.
None of this is acceptable or necessary and it’s not just about Covid-19, it’s also illustrative of a deeply deregulated corporate capitalism. America’s food system meltdown amid the pandemic has been long-developing, and a primary cause is decades of corporate centralization and a chaotic array of policies designed to prop up agribusiness profits at any cost.
“The dairy industry has been in crisis for decades because of overproduction and consolidation,” explains Eric Holt-Gimenez, the former director of Food First and author of Can We Feed the World Without Destroying It?. “Low prices and thin margins have made farmers vulnerable to even small market disruptions. The Covid-19 is the straw that broke the camel’s back. One hopes this will lead to the reforms dairy badly needs – reforms that ensure a healthy, sustainable industry that can help rebuild a more decentralized, family farmer-friendly industry.”
The US food economy is at once brutally rational and viciously insane. It’s a historic truism that, due to the market-driven food system and policies, farmers overproduce as a hedge for survival, even while knowing that systemic overproduction will sour the market. For nearly half a century, US farming policies have compelled farmers to “get big or get out”, as President Nixon’s famously acerbic agriculture secretary Earl Butz put it.
Farm crises in the 80s and 90s, coupled with waves of corporate takeovers, ushered an era of agribusiness consolidation wherein smaller numbers of giant farms and food processing corporations now control ever-greater portions of the food system. A handful of powerful corporations control the bulk of the US meat market, and this centralized production has had disastrous ramifications: as Covid-19 spread among workers in giant meatpacking plants, facility closures curtailed huge portions of US meat production in one fell swoop. (Many argue, with ample evidence, that less meat would be a boon for our health and the planet’s future.)
As the Smithfield meatpacking firm’s CEO stated, “The closure of this facility, combined with a growing list of other protein plants that have shuttered across our industry, is pushing our country perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply. It is impossible to keep our grocery stores stocked if our plants are not running.”
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There are few winners (corporate executives and major shareholders) and many losers (consumers, farmworkers, meatpacking workers, farmers, and our environment) in this monopolistic corporate food system that’s designed for profit and market control, not for sustainable or equitable farming and eating.
While there’s no single, magic-bullet solution, there are clear and urgently needed policy fixes that would make our food and farming system far more balanced, sustainable, and resilient to crises – whether it be the Covid-19 pandemic or intensifying climate havoc.
For starters, policies must support smaller farmers and diversified sustainable production. This includes what’s known as “parity” – a fair price for farmers’ crops, guaranteed by the government, to prevent overproduction and market chaos.
Subsidies that currently propel farming consolidation and mass production of commodities for livestock feed and fuel must be reformed to promote organic, smaller-scale, regionally and local foods. This will help farmers survive and provide communities with resilient and diverse food supplies rather than depending on vast and fragile corporate food supply chains.
If there were ever a time to bust up the food and farming monopolies, which are reminiscent of the Beef Trust of the early 1900s, now is it. Centralized corporate power is creating agricultural and economic mono-cropping at a time when we most need a food system that’s diverse, equitable and sustainable.
The Covid-19 crisis and worsening climate chaos require far more public-sector direction and coordination of something as central to human survival as food.
Amid the current supply-chain breakdown, as news spread of gargantuan food waste, some farmers and caravans of volunteers have helped deliver food directly from the farms to people in need – a truly heroic gift.
But this vital act, feeding people in need and averting massive food waste, can’t be left to random acts of kindness. Why aren’t federal, state, and local governments setting up food distribution networks, employing laid-off truckers, warehouse workers, and others? Why not create a Green New Deal for food that creates jobs and boosts communities’ ability to feed themselves in these increasingly volatile times?
The food supply breakdowns spurred by the coronavirus pandemic are a horrific wake-up call to revamp today’s anarchic corporate food system and start replacing it with a publicly coordinated system that supports small and mid-sized farmers producing diverse organic crops for local and regional markets. Not only can we afford to create such a system, we cannot afford not to make this urgent shift.