Food system a disaster or a success? The jury is still out

We don’t think well or wisely after suffering a shock.

We haven’t even gotten past the shock of COVID-19 to be able to develop thoughts much beyond surviving.

That’s why it’s so hard to tell if our farm and food system has proven itself to be an utter disaster or a screaming success. We’re too close to what’s going on right now to see it straight.

This is a troubling situation for farmers, buffeted by the crisis in completely divergent ways based on commodity and the type of operation a farmer is running.

Does the past-the-farmgate food production system need to be radically restructured, or does it just need a few tweaks?

Your answer probably depends upon how you look at a number of present situations. Have the shutdowns and slowdowns at packing plants proven slaughter to be utterly unable to rise to the challenge of COVID? Or have they done remarkably well, coming back online in quick order after initial shutdowns?

Have flour shortages, empty shelves of some dairy products, milk being dumped and weanling pigs being euthanized revealed critical failures of our food production system, or just temporary glitches to be expected in the biggest disease crisis in more than a century?

Your perspective will no doubt be heavily influenced by your own particular situation. If you’re busy seeding a crop or dealing with hundreds of young calves, you might not be that flustered about the present chaos in other parts of agriculture and food. Overall, the outlook might not be that bleak if COVID-19 fades before the fall.

If you’re forced into the heart-breaking task of euthanizing piglets, the tragedy of dumping milk, or the pain of seeing your farm face insolvency as revenues collapse, you likely see this as a crisis of epic proportions and proof that the food system is broken.

There have been widespread predictions that the problems with packing plants, shortages at grocery stores, and fears of the border closing to agricultural trade will lead to a proliferation of small slaughter plants, less emphasis on export agriculture and major growth of direct farmer-to-consumer food sales.

That’s possible. We’ve certainly seen problems at various parts of the food and farm system.

It’s also possible that the crisis element of COVID-19 is already past and things will revert to “normal” quicker than anybody expects.

I suggest that little of significance will happen to our food system if the crisis fades as our society and global economy learn to manage COVID-19 as a problem, rather than a crisis.

But if chronic food supply issues continue to leave shelves empty in grocery stores, farmers dumping milk and euthanizing baby pigs, and that persists for a year or two, then there will be significant change, possibly forced by government action.

For what it’s worth, my guess is that the COVID-19 crisis is already over, and that we’re now managing a chronic problem. If I’m right, not much will change. People will fix what’s obviously broken, but rather than a revolution, there will be reform.

That’s what I think. What do you think?

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