BACK STORY with DANA LEWIS

FOOD CHAIN PANDEMIC

May 27, 2020 Dana Lewis
BACK STORY with DANA LEWIS
FOOD CHAIN PANDEMIC
Chapters
00:13:05
Farmer Steve Groff - Pennsylvania/Author The Future-Proof Farm
BACK STORY with DANA LEWIS
FOOD CHAIN PANDEMIC
May 27, 2020
Dana Lewis

THE PANDEMIC has ravaged our food supply chain. Hundreds of thousands of cows, pigs, and chickens culled as meat packing plants were shut down because workers were ill with Covid 19.  Vegetables and berries have been plowed under from shortages of workers.  And 1 in 5 American families trouble feeding families.   Hunger is growing Globally. Listen to Caitlin Welsh The Director of The Global Food Security Program. Center for Strategic Studies.

Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

THE PANDEMIC has ravaged our food supply chain. Hundreds of thousands of cows, pigs, and chickens culled as meat packing plants were shut down because workers were ill with Covid 19.  Vegetables and berries have been plowed under from shortages of workers.  And 1 in 5 American families trouble feeding families.   Hunger is growing Globally. Listen to Caitlin Welsh The Director of The Global Food Security Program. Center for Strategic Studies.

Speaker 1:

At this time of great uncertainty in many of our normal routines and regular patterns of life are being challenged. The food and farming sector is no exception. If we are to harvest British fruit and vegetables this year, we need an army of people to help. Food does not happen by magic.

Speaker 2:

Hi everyone and welcome to

Speaker 3:

backstory. I'm your host Dana Lewis. That familiar boys was Prince Charles. It was called for an army of people defined it.

Speaker 2:

Jobs on the UK is fruit and vegetable farms because they are desperately short of people to pick this year's crops, closed European borders, people sick from COBIT 19 that all makes for a dire harvest and it's a similar story from Europe to Canada and America and onto Asia. In this our latest edition of backstory, the delicate international food supply chain is rattled and some might say very near broken

Speaker 4:

[inaudible].

Speaker 2:

Caitlin Welsh is the director of the global food security program at the center for strategic and international studies. Hi Kaitlin.

Speaker 5:

Hi Dana.

Speaker 2:

As we speak, Prince Charles in the UK is asking people as in war time to go and pick food before it spoils in the fields. What's happening to labor and the flow of workers worldwide in this pandemic. If you could just kind of paint a general picture.

Speaker 5:

Sure. I think that's a great question. A great place to start. What we're seeing right now is a food crisis on a global scale and it's not due to the fact that there's not enough food available worldwide. It's due to disruptions across different aspects of food systems and that, uh, that, that request by Prince Charles, um, to me pinpoints access to food with, uh, with, with harvesting food. Um, and the, the particular issue there could have to do with availability of labor. Um, w uh, one thing that we're seeing worldwide is disruptions in labor flows. So that could, that could be one of the reasons that Prince Charles made that, um, made that request. Um, and, uh, also I think that he's, he's probably doing that to, uh, to reduce the amount of food loss and waste worldwide. Um, it was already very high before the pandemic. Um, but we're seeing because supply chains that they're very, very efficient. They're not flexible though. Um, and, uh, when for a variety of reasons, farmers are not able to reach markets, what we're seeing is, uh, is huge amounts of, of, of food loss, unfortunately. Um,

Speaker 2:

I want to talk to you about that. French fishermen say they're throwing back two thirds of their cash. Australia is facing an avocado glut. A farmer in Ontario, Canada now feed some of his milk back to his cows, but there is a limit to what can be recycled. Um, you know, most of what can not be sold will be wasted. Millions of liters of cake is going stale. The EU is expecting to lose $430 million worth of potatoes. So America's food waste ratio, um, where you are, is set to rise 30 to 40% this year. I mean, these are huge problems.

Speaker 5:

They really are. And again, they were problems before the pandemic and they're there. They're actually worse right now. I'll give you some more examples of what we're seeing in the United States. There was one chicken processing company that killed 2 million chickens in April. We had another that smashed a three quarters of a million of eggs in one week. Um, I think one of the biggest tragedies is with farmers who raise animals having to call their herds. So essentially kill the animals because they can't send them to meat processing plants. Um, and so we, uh, so we're seeing that in the, um, you know, in the tens of thousands per week across the U S um, so what's happening there is a, there's a, a couple of things. One of the main things is that, um, in, in March and into April, orders from restaurants and not just restaurants, but other places where people gathered to eat. So sports arenas, cafeterias at universities, um, public spaces generally, um, those orders fell off of a cliff as people were no longer able to gather. So farmers who are raising animals, um, and growing growing crops for those, um, to, for those establishments no longer had markets for their goods. So they were forced to, um, and they couldn't adjust quickly enough. They couldn't pivot. And so, um, they had no choice but to, but to waste their food, there's destroy their product.

Speaker 2:

Why do they have to call beef or call chickens or call, uh, pigs? W why is that? Because they cannot get the seed or they cannot afford, uh, to keep those animals longer without sending them to a meat processing plant or what is the problem?

Speaker 5:

Yeah. Um, a couple of reasons. One of them is that, um, when it comes to the pig supply chains, in particular, farmers who raise pigs don't invest in enough space to, um, to keep, to keep pigs or they're used to large amounts of product flowing through. So they, um, they, they'll raise them until they get to a certain size. Um, and then once they reach a certain size and they'll ship them off to be, um, to the, to the meat packing plants to be, um, to be processed for consumption. Um, but, uh, when the meat processing plants can no longer take them, it means that the pigs continue to grow in size. Um, and farmers simply don't have space to, um, to, to keep them and, um, and, and are forced. And, and again, uh, one thing that's very important is that farmers don't want to be making this decision. They, um, they're invested in their product and, um, and they're doing this only by necessity right now.

Speaker 2:

And yet you have meat shortages, uh, in some supermarkets in America. Why is that?

Speaker 5:

You're seeing that because of, because the meat processing plants are being taken offline. And that is because, um, not because of, you know, because of there's a problem inherent to the meat processing plant. It's because of worker. And I think that that's one of the most important things that's been a problem in the youth us meat industry for decades. Um, but the reason that meat processing plants are being taken offline is because of higher rates of, uh, of illness or even seeing death. Because of 19, almost 15,000 meat workers had been infected with coronavirus in meat packing facilities across the United States. And that's across 31 States. So this is a nationwide problem. We've known about this for several weeks. Uh, hundreds of cases, uh, in, in the panhandle in Texas. So it's because meat worker illness at meat packing plants is taking those offline and then, um, just back up one a few steps from there. And farmers who raised animals to send to those facilities are no longer able to send them there.

Speaker 2:

I mean, obviously you couldn't see this exact situation coming, but could you see the danger, uh, over the last 20 years of increased concentration of farms? I mean, America's poultry market for instance. Uh, you can correct me if I'm wrong. I believe it's controlled by just four companies. Is that a good thing?

Speaker 5:

Um, yeah. Not only that, but I believe, um, 90% of chickens, uh, uh, raised in the United States are, are part of virtual vertical integration. Meaning that the farmers that raise them don't actually own them. Uh, they don't sell them. They raise them to sell them to other processors. I think that's an example of what you're talking about. Um, what we're seeing in the United States is, is that we have an incredibly efficient food system, but that efficiency has come at the cost of flexibility so that when you have disruptions like the ones we're seeing today, producers are unable to pivot, um, uh, to, to, to shift their products to other markets. So for example, um, you have farmers and ranchers raising their product to sell to a very specific consumer. So that consumer might be a specific restaurant or specific type of restaurant. When that restaurant no longer, um, can, can take in an order, those producers are not able to pivot so they can sell the product to a different, um, to a different consumer like to grocery stores. And that's because, um, you have different packaging needs at different outlets. Um, it's because you have different labeling needs at different outlets. Um, for example, if you are raising a, a particular prime cut of beef, um, that a restaurant can no longer take, the producer is unable to grind that beef to send it to a grocery store. Um, you just simply have very, very specialized supply chains that are unable to, that are again, very, very efficient but unable to, to, um, but that are in an inflexible,

Speaker 2:

is this a disruption of bump on the road or are we in a spiral of the food supply chain?

Speaker 5:

I think that we're not out of the woods yet. Um, I think that things will start to get better slowly. We're seeing hunger unprecedented in modern times, the United States alongside images of mass food loss and waste. Um, I think that the public is aware of this crisis in a way that they haven't been recently. Um, and um, and so I, I'd be surprised if we don't take a hard look at our food systems that things don't change after this, particularly regarding worker health.

Speaker 2:

I mean, a lot of people, when they think of hunger, think of third world, they do not think of America.

Speaker 5:

Yeah. Um, so we're, we're seeing, um, shocking rates of hunger here. It's not because there's not enough food available. It's because destructions all across the system and it's also because of the economic downturn generally. And that's the one of the main reasons for food insecurity in the United States and worldwide. Well, you have an economic downturn. Um, and our, the fed chair Jerome Powell said that this downturn, um, the scope and speed of this downturn or without modern precedent, and so of course you're going to see food insecurity without precedent. One of the most shocking statistics that came out of a study that was released last week by the Brookings institution found that, um, in one in five households where, um, where their children 12 and under and one in five, um, the children were experiencing food insecurity and the researchers concluded that young children are experiencing food insecurity to an extent, unprecedented in modern times,

Speaker 2:

uh, around the world. It must be much worse than that depending on where you are

Speaker 5:

exactly, depending on where you are. Um, before the pandemic, there are a couple indicators. We had 820 million people around 820 million who were chronically undernourished. So that, that, that's a very high baseline to start with before the pandemic. Um, that was a, um, an estimate by the UN food and agricultural organization and some others. Um, the UN world food program had estimated before the pandemic that in addition there were about 130 million people who are at risk of sudden shocks to food to food security. So at risk of just for different reasons being thrown into food insecurity. That was before the pandemic.

Speaker 2:

Now you and I have another statistic, the UN estimates economic fallout from covert 19 could see the number of people suffering from acute hunger doubled to over 265 million this year. Does that kind of jive with what you've heard?

Speaker 5:

It does. That's exactly where I was going. So before the pandemic, they, they estimate 130 million and then they, because of the pandemic, they estimate that the number of people that could be thrown into food insecurity could double the two 65 million acute food insecurity just because of sudden shocks. Um, and uh, yeah, related to the pandemic.

Speaker 2:

And all of this is internationally now tied together, right? It's not that you domestically produce food and sell domestically. Often Ukrainian wheat for instance, milled to flour in Turkey turned to noodles in China. I mean a lot of the food supplies link,

Speaker 5:

absolutely global trade is, uh, is essential to food security for countries around the world. United States for example, we rely on imports to meet about 15% of our domestic food needs. That that proportion is much higher in developing countries where their agriculture sectors are not as, uh, not, not as advanced. Um, so, uh, so developing countries are much more susceptible to, um, to, to shocks and global trade. What we're seeing right now is about 15 countries have limited exports of their own food so that they can, they can, they can in an effort to meet their own domestic food needs. Um, policy analyses show that those aren't, aren't actually very, are, are not effective measures. Um, but what we're hoping is that that number does not rise and that it actually decreases.

Speaker 2:

That's, that's becomes a very serious situation. If you have countries saying, we're not going to export food, we're going to keep it for domestic consumption. In a crisis.

Speaker 5:

It absolutely does. Um, the last time that there was a major global food crisis was about 12 years ago, is 2007 and 2008 and at that time about 33 countries put export restrictions in place. And that, um, the effect of that was that it, um, it increased, it increased food prices such that it through, um, about 40 million more people into food insecurity because of those export restrictions. Uh, at that time, about about 12 years ago, 2007, 2008, there were about 45 countries that experienced riots worldwide. Um, some of which led to, to, um, to political change again, right now in the United States and worldwide, the crisis is not because there's not enough food available, but it's because of shocks across the system for all the things that we're mentioning for food processing, sales, um, economic downturn, reducing individual's ability to purchase food, et cetera.

Speaker 2:

Caitlin, great to talk to you. Thanks so much. All right. Steve Groff joins me now from South Eastern Pennsylvania. He is a farmer. He has tomatoes and spaghetti squash and other things. But he also, and probably more importantly for us lectures on farming, he's been all over the world. He's written a book called the future proof farm. And Steve, I think you may have to rewrite it after COBIT 19.

Speaker 6:

Well, you know, it's kinda timely in a way. When I wrote this book, I had no idea that Cobra 19 was coming on, but the Futureproof farm has to do with how we grow our food. And a big component of it is trying to think about things using the nutrient density or the nutrients and vitamins they're actually in our food and that occurs the way we grow it. And uh, so actually the book is very timely, but as you said, Dana, I uh, I am thinking about writing a follow up here at some

Speaker 2:

farmers were saying it's a bloodbath in terms of food production. I mean, really all over the world people are facing incredible challenges. But in the wake of COBIT 19 America, which has a $100 billion farm economy, it's got some deep trouble.

Speaker 6:

Well, there's some chinks in the armor. Have been come to light because of COBIT 19, and it's all because of our Justin time food supply system. And uh, because of the workers, it's actually the human component of that. And that's what we heard all about the meat shortages. It's because there are humans, there are people that need to be in the processing factories to be able to do that. So obviously that creates some challenges. Either the people get sick or they're afraid to come to work and you just can't, uh, do your, just the assembly line when you have people missing. And

Speaker 2:

I going to adjust. What does it mean just in time food supply?

Speaker 6:

Um, let's just take vegetables for example. You, we grow the vegetables and they're ripe during a certain period of time. Their, their shelf life is very small. And uh, so you harvest them the, the, you know, a few days before they're right. And then they have to be processed and packaged. That takes human effort in almost all cases. And then they get delivered to the stores. So from the time a product is harvested, so it gets to the stores is a matter of days. And then if you have a in the middle of that, if you have a section of that or that doesn't, um, allow for humans who will say in this case to do the processing, but then it's either ceased or stopped and then by that time the tomatoes may rot because they don't stay for three or four weeks. And so then we don't have them. And that's part of it. The other aspect is food service, restaurants, schools, um, businesses even is 50% of the use of food. And the way food is directed for food service is different than it is to grocery stores. It's different packaging, different sizes, even different varieties. I grow specific varieties, a butternut squash for grocery stores and other varieties of butternut squash for restaurant.

Speaker 2:

Okay, well let's, let's just stop there for a second. Because restaurants, you're saying that's 50%. I mean that market just collapsed.

Speaker 6:

It did, it did. So you would, you know, you would think, well, okay, people have to eat so you can automatically just switch to food instead of going to a restaurant. It just goes to a grocery store. Well, it's not that simple because as I said, packaging and sizes and a whole host of things, there's a few things that can go to both, uh, end users, but not a lot. And that's,

Speaker 2:

so that's where, that's why we see, that's why we see in that system a farmer saying that they have to plow these crops under, which, I mean it's horrendous given the fact that there are food shortages.

Speaker 6:

It is. And, and it's all because of between the farmer and the end user. That's the problem.

Speaker 2:

So what, how should that change? I mean, is this a wake up call? Is there something positive that comes out of this?

Speaker 6:

Yes. Um, there certainly is. And I think moving forward we're going to have to consider more of the direct marketing, the farmers to sell more directly to consumers. And I would encourage consumers to seek out farmers who are able to sell directly. And I'm a small farmer myself. So, uh, any time that I can be more direct to consumer, that may even put a bigger share of the dollar will say Hey into, into my pocket and people can get it more, uh, more directly as well. So I think, uh, the uptick in interest of locally grown, for instance, I think we'll continue. That's not going to serve all our food needs and that's not the point. The point is we need to be aware of some of these safeguards and we probably need to put you putting in place here and going more direct to the farmers is definitely one of those safe parts.

Speaker 2:

Do you think the federal government saying things like they want to stop food at the border, they want to keep it inside the United States is a good thing or is that kind of protectionism a dangerous thing?

Speaker 6:

I, you know, it's a two way street. Um, as we've always said for a while it's a, it's a small world out there and I guess like it or not, you know, we do need to reply. We needed to do you need to re re um, rely on some other nations that are closed. But that being said, I think this, uh, Cobra 19 has also brought up the fact that we do need a, you know, don't outsource too much. Uh, I guess so. I would be a big proponent of doing as local as possible. And that means even from a national perspective, uh, we can grow plenty of food. It's that it's not a food shortage as far as growing it. It's the system that is not serving us well right now.

Speaker 2:

My mother originally came from Western Canada, from Saskatchewan and I've been up there where they were huge wheat farming and I know, um, I mean I grew up on a, I grew up on a cow farm, but I know from the wheat farmers that you just don't plant a crop one year in advance. I mean, you were doing rotation crop crops and you were planning far into the future, you know, at least three years anyway. When you're doing farm leases. What does this suddenly do to everyone? How does a farmer plan now for next year? They must put everybody upside down and, and, and, and how does that translate into the food chain?

Speaker 6:

Yeah, I think, uh, we're all thinking about that. Um, my son and I who farms on my plans, my son farms with me here, we've been discussing that uh, here right now, right now short term and we are actually trying to have focus more on the grocery stores and we're actually changing up some varieties here at the last minute cause we still have time to do that. Our planning system or planting window has not closed yet. So we're trying to adjust like for the near term, which the near term for us is three or four months. Uh, but as we move forward there's still so many all Nunes out there of now. Now it's not so much of how steep is the curve going to be. I think we've flattened the curve, if you will. Now it's how will the reopening work, how is the timeline and what will come out of this? Obviously there's political influences at play right now that we feel like it's hard to have any control over. So it's more of a day to day thing or week to week thing. Now, Dana, as we move forward,

Speaker 2:

I'm not going to hit the consumer or is it going to hit the consumer? Well, I'm going to see it on the grocery shelves.

Speaker 6:

I think we will in form or fashion. I just saw this morning that there was some restaurants that opened up, they're putting a Qubit 19 surcharge on the bottom of their bill and it was like, of course the customers aren't too thrilled about that. And I have myself, I'm thinking, wow, that's, I don't think that's gonna fly, but it'll probably, um, I guarantee you the price of food is not going down. Uh,

Speaker 2:

are we going to have enough? Are we gonna have enough?

Speaker 6:

I, I think we will. That to me, I'm not afraid of, uh, uh, we can grow the, we can grow the product. Uh, there, there could be some labor shortage is actually, I'm, I'm suffering that a little bit now and getting my, my labor, I think I'll be getting it on time for June, July and August when I'm busiest, but they're not here yet. And, um, it is, it is, it is a somewhat of a challenge and that end of it, but I'm not too concerned about a shortage of food. I'm concerned more about the supply chain and how that's going to work out.

Speaker 2:

When you say they're not here yet, who are they, where are they coming from and will they come?

Speaker 6:

Right. So I use the uh, United States H to H program, which is the legal way to bring in, um, foreign workers. I've been doing that for the last 16 years, I guess now. It's worked very well.

Speaker 2:

Are they coming from outside the U S

Speaker 6:

yes, the ones I am getting are from the country of Thailand. So, uh, they are right now there's being delayed because the embassy was shut down where they need to get their visas. So we're waiting for that. Um, but it hasn't impacted me dramatically that yet, but it will, uh, if, if there's further delays, so

Speaker 2:

where are they going to sleep? You, you obviously have housing there for them. How many do you have in a room and it must change all of that.

Speaker 6:

Yeah. Yeah. We have a, we have housing here and we have gotten some of the updated requirements of that. And um, to this point, it's something I believe we can handle. I guess I'm always aware that things change weekly here and this is more of a political thing. The department of labor sets those standards and so forth. So we're going to kind of have to roll with it. And I would just say if, um, if regulations come on us that are onerous that just force us to increase our costs or whatever that means, you know, it's going to have to be passed on.

Speaker 2:

And I guess when they talk about people going hungry, even if you have farmers that have product, if prices increase, there are a lot of people that unfortunately will not be able to afford this stuff. And a lot of it doesn't get the food banks.

Speaker 6:

I have been involved with food banks anyway, so I kind of have that channel already open. I don't really expect, yeah, thank you. But I don't expect a high, I'm just super high, you know, double the price of food. I don't expect that. But I don't expect some prices to come up on the retail side, on the farmer side. You know, we just don't know. I think, like you said, grain farmers right now, it's, it's not good. It's not looking good. The futures are not good. There's so many uncertainties out there that we just don't know. You know what's going to happen until the end of this year. And in the next,

Speaker 2:

Steve Groff, the author of a book called the future proof farm, uh, which, which is getting to be very difficult to future proof yourself in this situation. Thank you so much.

Speaker 6:

Yeah, you're welcome, Dana. My pleasure.

Speaker 2:

The food crisis has already spilled over into kitchens. A recent poll in Britain shows over half the people are valuing food more with 48% say they're throwing away less food of those wasting less people say they're planning meals more carefully and they're getting a lot better at using leftovers. Shopping habits have shifted to a quarter of the people surveyed say they're getting better at buying quality food is they're not going out and spending money on other things. While more than a third of the people are supporting smaller local business more than ever before, and a further 42% say they're not buying takeaways because money is tight. That's another edition of backstory. Please share our Lincoln substance

Speaker 3:

drive to the podcast feed. I'm Dana Lewis. Thanks for listening to backstory.

Speaker 7:

[inaudible].

Farmer Steve Groff - Pennsylvania/Author The Future-Proof Farm