by Cindy Sorensen / The Grocery Group
There is no doubt the coronavirus is the top story of the year. There is not an industry or country that hasn’t been impacted by it. Much has been written about the excess of food that was created when an entire distribution channel was shut down as a result of the pandemic. According to estimates, 50 percent or more of produce, meat, pork, poultry, dairy and fish is consumed through the foodservice channel.
When schools and restaurants shut down, there was nowhere for this food to go. That was due to the inability to easily convert foodservice processing production equipment into retail processing and packaging production lines.
A majority of this excess food was destroyed: milk was dumped; produce was left in the fields to rot; animals were culled.
Store shelves emptied as households hoarded food as the uncertainty of the future lingered. At the same time, people were out of work and lining up for miles and hours at pantries.
It took several months, but solutions began to develop that would turn “excess into access,” as explained by Cathy Burns, CEO of the Produce Marketing Association, during its recent virtual summit.
Through all the turmoil, farmers suffered financially before receiving bailout subsidies from the government to help them operate for another season.
While reflecting on the events of 2020, I am struck by how agriculture was merely trying to survive by reacting to the pandemic, rather than being proactive and prepared for it.
Where were the packaging and distribution contingency plans for excess products? What was the plan for food shelf packaging and distribution? It seems as if agriculture focused on the plan for a post-crisis environment more than the preparedness for an actual event.
Maybe that’s what agriculture could learn from this pandemic? Perhaps the bailout subsidies could become an investment strategy and not an insurance plan.
Planning for a crisis is a matter of when, not if. There will undoubtedly be another one in the future, whether it’s a new virus, a natural disaster or manmade calamity.
What if government funds earmarked for agricultural subsidies were invested into manufacturing facilities and warehouses? They could then salvage, manufacture, package, store and distribute available goods when that unknown future event arrives.
We should never have the imbalance of food excess and insecurity that we experienced this year. If we exit 2020 without learning from this and preparing for the future, we will repeat the scenario.
What will the investment plan be for the future stability of the food supply chain at the time of the next crisis? The planning starts now.