Over the last year and a half, the pandemic, natural disasters, and cybersecurity breaches have revealed deep weaknesses in our food and farm systems, according to National Farmers Union (NFU). In comments submitted today to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the organization’s president, Rob Larew, highlighted the need to build resilience to future disruptions and offered recommendations to achieve that goal, including “facilitating fair and competitive markets, improving local and regional food production, supporting and promoting nutrition security, and meeting the needs of the agricultural workforce.”
USDA solicited comments in response to an executive order requiring the agency to submit a report on strengthening food and agricultural supply chains. Input collected from NFU and other stakeholders will inform the report.
One of the most significant problems for farmers, per Larew’s comments, is “immense consolidation in the markets that both supply and buy from their operations,” particularly in the livestock and dairy sectors. Though this is by no means a new issue, it came to a head during the pandemic when “the closures or slowdowns at several massive meatpacking plants resulted in lost markets for farmers, constrained supplies, and higher prices for consumers.” Similar problems were also observed in 2019, after a fire shut down a Kansas beef processing plant, and just a few weeks ago, following a cyberattack on the world’s biggest meatpacker.
“To address. . .significant supply chain vulnerabilities from highly concentrated farm and food supply chains,” Larew urged USDA to “vigorously enforce existing antitrust, competition, and market fairness laws.” As an alternative to the large, inflexible corporations that currently dominate our food production and distribution, the administration can instead bolster local and regional food and farm systems, which are “often better positioned to adapt rapidly to new conditions, given their shorter supply chains and more direct connection to consumers.”
In the coming months and years, the food chain will also undoubtedly be tested by climate-related challenges, such as extreme temperatures, flooding, droughts, and wildfires. Whether those challenges escalate into system-wide breakdowns depends on our ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and sequester carbon, as well as modernize processing, storage, and transportation infrastructure. Larew proposed a range of solutions, among them making climate change an “urgent priority across USDA,” providing the financial and technical support farmers need to mitigate and adapt, encouraging on-farm renewable energy systems, and seeking input from all farmers, including those who are socially disadvantaged.