Mending a Fragile Food Supply Chain

By Dr. Michael Bredeson, Ecdysis Research Scientist

04/23/2020


We can’t hope to fight off an illness or rebuild an economy without being properly nourished. A civilization’s food supply is the very foundation by which the physical and economic wellbeing of a nation’s populous is built. The current pandemic gives us a timely opportunity to look at the way we produce and distribute food. Have we built a resilient system which we can depend on, or is COVID-19 highlighting the cracks in a fragile agricultural industry dependent on a web of global infrastructure?

In the last 100 years, food production has trended away from local production and distribution, toward specialization and industrialization. What does this mean? Entire regions, some as large as the great plains, are dedicated to growing just one or two crop species. Large supplies are then trucked, trained, or sailed across the globe.

Alarmingly, specialization has brought about production of certain foods in a select few locations. Need some pizza sauce for dinner tonight? Ninety-five percent of tomatoes bound for processing in the US are grown in California’s Central Valley. This is despite most agricultural regions in the US having climates well suited for growing this staple crop. Tomatoes aren’t alone. This production model is the norm. It appears we are breaking the age-old rule, don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

Is it a bad thing for the agricultural sector to be specialized? At first glance, centralized growing and processing of crops seems efficient and cost-effective. Farmers and manufacturers can streamline production by investing in equipment and infrastructure to process crops on a large scale to be sent around the world. This system has functioned for a time, but research and experience now show us that the proverbial “cracks” in agriculture’s foundation, formed by industrialization and a simplified farming landscape, are becoming wider fissures, threatening economies and societies built on food.

Drawbacks of a simplified agricultural industry:

1) Global food supply chains dependent on industrialized agriculture to maintain supplies must stay productive in the midst of crises like pandemics, climate change or political unrest. Reliance on these potentially volatile situations remaining unfraught results in an increasingly fragile food supply chain. We can draw on an example of this currently playing out on the global marketplace today. COVID-19, the cause of a pandemic disrupting nearly every aspect of our lives, is resulting in food shortages where the virus is hitting hardest.

2) A side effect of globalized food chains is the deterioration of once highly productive farmland and contamination of fresh water. Simplified crop rotations and large-scale monocultures require inputs of fertilizer and pesticides and tillage to maintain productivity, and prevent disease and pest outbreaks.

3) Rural economies suffer from a transition to simplified cropping systems as a result of fewer farmers managing larger tracts of land and fewer supporting industries necessary to maintain diversified farms. This phenomenon is easily seen across corn and soybean farming country of the Midwest. Feed mills, seed cleaners, livestock barns, machine repair shops and local grocery stores are shuttered in countless small towns. In many of these communities the only growing businesses are fertilizer and agrichemical providers, employing a handful of locals to spread fertilizer and chemicals on degraded soils requiring additional inputs to remain productive.

So, what’s the alternative? If we can identify flaws in an industry vital to our national security and personal wellbeing, then action should be taken to fortify it. A solution being pioneered by some of the countries most innovative farmers is the transition toward local food production to meet regional needs rather than maximizing output to support a global supply chain. These farmers recognize how the current simplification of agriculture has led to significant damage done to the natural resources they manage, and damage done to their once thriving rural communities.

Advantages of incentivizing local food production:

1) Localized production and distribution of diverse agricultural goods strengthens the security of our nation’s food supply. Recently, in Wuhan, China, amidst a growing health crisis and failing global food supply chain unable to meet resident’s needs an initiative termed “The Vegetable Basket” was spurred to source food from local farmers. Luckily, in a society where local farmers grow a diversity of food crops residents of Wuhan had the nutritional resources they needed to stay alive. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has highlighted this case study as a grand success for strong local food production. I am left wondering, in the United States, do we have a similar safety net?

2) Positive land stewardship practices are adopted under food systems based on local sourcing and distribution. Adding more species into a farmer’s crop rotation and incorporating pastured livestock are positive side effects of transitioning to locally-based food chains. These and other techniques characteristic of diversified farms bolster natural pest control and reduce the need for fossil-fuel dependent fertilizers.

3) Agricultural economies are strengthened following a transitioning toward local food production as farmers capture a much larger percentage their product’s worth to be redistributed locally, not globally. Industrialized commodity agriculture results in most of the value of a product being extracted by global supply chain industries, or, middlemen. It is a sobering fact that in 2018 US farmers captured a mere 7.8 cents for every dollar spent on food in this country, the remaining value being shaved off by every “link” in the global food chain. In local food economies value is recaptured and recycled much like the nutrients in well managed soil.

COVID-19 will make us rethink many aspects of our lives and societal structure. The way we produce and distribute food must be at the top of the list of items for consideration. At present, industrialized agriculture threatens our own national security by relying on a fragile global supply chain with poor resilience to major crises and results in deteriorating natural resources and rural economies. By reshaping our agricultural industry to depend less heavily on commodity production and more on local and regional food chain development we can restore our nation’s solid foundation.

Dr. Mike Bredeson has been with Ecdysis Foundation since its inception. His expertise ranges from toxicology and environmental fate of pesticides to arthropod community assessments in croplands. Currently, Dr. Bredeson is involved in the planning and rollout of a multi-state, multi-nation project aiming to understand the true impact of regenerative farming on insects and their important services.

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