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Food Distribution May Change Considerably After Pandemic

Analysis by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

food supply

Story at-a-glance -

  • Milk is flying off the shelves and grocers are putting limits on sales, but dairy farmers are having to dump milk and are being asked to sell their cows
  • For many, the problem lies in the food supply chain. Farmers selling to the hospitality industry have vegetables rotting in the fields
  • Livestock was diverted to other processing plants when some closed after workers tested positive for COVID-19; experts believe it won’t affect what you see at the store
  • Supply chain disruptions are also affecting fishermen who are concerned that restaurant closures will impact sales
  • Tyson put an exit plan in place nearly four years ago, partnering with emerging plant- or lab-based food companies, also hinting at 3-D printed food. It is time to consider growing some of your own produce

Many of the headlines and predictions in the past few weeks have been dire. The fear and panic they spread can be paralyzing, making it difficult to adapt and develop a constructive plan for the future. Yet, in order to think clearly and identify the steps you can take to protect your health, it’s important that you control fear.

While it is helpful to stay up to date with changes, it isn’t necessary to get sucked in by the stylistic exaggerations of the media headlines. Instead, look for the facts and seek out your own answers.

Whether life returns to the way it was one year ago or not, the reality is that any return to “normal” is months away. When the shelter-in-place orders have ended, the repercussions to the food supply chain shutdowns may mean some industries won’t fully recover.

Dairy Farmers Incentivized to Close Their Farms

While milk is flying off the shelves in some stores, dairy farmers are being asked to dump hundreds of gallons of milk and sell their cows.1 With restaurants and schools closed, the industry is sending all their supplies to grocery stores. However, when the shelter-in-place orders were first announced, grocery stores were limiting milk to one or two gallons per customer.

Those limits left dairy farmers with a glut of milk on the farm, while contending with plummeting prices. Richard Conrad, co-owner of Conrad Farms in New Holland, Ohio,2 spoke with CNN. His farm supports 500 cattle and sales of milk account for two-thirds of their income. In the first few weeks it seemed the issue would be a short-term problem, but by the time of the interview, he realized he was wrong.

The Wisconsin Dairy Alliance said there is milk ready and waiting for processing, leaving food banks and pantries with a desperate need for dairy products.3 Several dairy groups have sent letters to the U.S. Department of Agriculture including a statement from the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin:4

"America's freedom, strength and future hinges on its ability to feed its people. We must make sure that this crisis doesn't leave American weak by our inability to deliver food to our own people. There is no good reason for Americans to go hungry while our farms are the most capable and efficient in the world. We need immediate action."

The Ice Age Farmer published a letter on Twitter5 from the Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery in Wisconsin, in which the coop encouraged farmers to quit their dairy farms. In a stroke of irony, the letter was dated April 1, 2020.

Channel 7 news in Wisconsin ran a story on the letter April 3, 2020.6 Several people the reporter spoke with called the move “unprecedented.” Specifically, the letter encouraged dairy farmers who were unable to sell their milk, to sell their cows in the next 15 days.

In exchange, the cooperative promised the farmers a 100% equity payout in the coop from 2010 to 2019. The coop was trying to reduce production because grocers had begun limiting sales.

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Produce Is Rotting in the Fields

The pandemic has also affected produce distribution. Strawberries, zucchini and tomatoes are just some of the fruits and vegetables left to rot in the field in Florida and California as farmers don’t have an outlet to sell their produce.7 Tony DiMare, tomato grower from south Florida, spoke to WTSP News 10, telling the reporter:8

“This is a catastrophe. We haven’t even started to calculate it. It’s going to be in the millions of dollars. Losses mount every day.”

Shay Myers is a large onion producer who recently posted a video describing losses on his farm in millions of pounds of onions.9 The onions were destined for restaurants and the food service industry but with the pandemic, demand has fallen. Myers aptly describes the disconnect in the ability get the produce to the end user during the pandemic, likening it to bridges being destroyed:10

"The way I've been describing it to people who aren't as accustomed to the normal supply chain is that imagine a freeway that is connecting a farm to the city. That freeway has a massive bridge that goes over a massive river and that bridge gets knocked out. If that bridge is knocked out you can't rebuild immediately.

Now, are there other routes to get there? Yeah, but it takes longer. And if it takes longer that means the normal product that's in that supply chain cannot make it. And that's what we're seeing today. Normal shipments in the United States, loads of onions, normal U.S. consumption is 350 loads a day.

We saw sub-200 shipments, 200 loads per day every single day last week. And the most recent number that I've seen is 127. That's one-third of the normal U.S. consumption of onions is being shipped.

That's the shift in the supply chain. That's why you're seeing milk being dumped, tomatoes being dumped, squash in Florida being dumped …”

Florida farmers had expected a huge bumper crop in spring, but for some, 80% or more of the crops are still in the field. It costs more to pick and pack the vegetables than what they’re being paid.11 Some farmers have developed direct-to-consumer services and are experiencing a boost in sales, however. Evan Wiig, from the Community Alliance with Family Farmers, told The Guardian:12

“We’re using this as an opportunity to encourage collaboration and farmers working together to try to fill the gaps in this disruption. It’s been kind of a mad rush to figure out supply and demand and who needs what, who has what. This is usually something that you do carefully over the course of an entire year. And here we are trying to do it in a matter of a week in order to prevent the closure of the farms, and also a lot of food waste.”

Meat Packing Plants Shutting Down

Several meat processing plants around the U.S. have closed after multiple employees tested positive for COVID-19.13 While CNN14 tells their readers not to panic shop, Smithfield chose another tactic, warning the country’s meat supply is “perilously close” to15 being depleted.

Although the closings are devastating to some producers and could result in animals being housed in inhumane conditions, Steve Meyer, with commodity firm Kerns and Associates, believes consumers won’t notice the shutdowns. He said,16 "We have a lot of pork, we have a lot of chicken, we have a lot of beef in cold storage. We can draw on that should we have some shortages."

Some of the plants are diverting the work to other meat processing plants. Christine McCracken, analyst with multinational Rabobank, said the plant closures from staffing shortages may mean fewer options in the short-term, but not less meat on the grocery store shelves.

Seafood Industry’s Efforts to Keep Supply Chain Open

The fishing industry has also felt the pinch from dwindling demand as two-thirds of the seafood in the U.S. is consumed in restaurants.17 Fishing is a billion-dollar industry, paying the salary of 34,000 people. As the market for lobster, oysters and other shellfish has taken a downturn it’s left many without an income.

Much of the fish caught off the U.S. coastline is sent overseas where monkfish and dogfish are more popular. This has led to 90% of the seafood eaten in the U.S. being imported, while much of what is caught in the U.S. is exported. Red's Best is a wholesale company that purchases solely from small fishermen. It is led by founder and CEO Jared Auerbach.

Along with Marder Seafood, another wholesaler, they are buying, cutting and freezing fish to keep the fishermen in business and hedging their bets they'll have inventory to sell when the market opens in the coming months.

Auerbach is using another tactic to sell more fish to the U.S. market, partnering with a top chef from Boston, Jeremy Sewall, to shoot videos showing how to prepare fish at home. The objective has been to keep the supply chains open and functioning since restarting may be challenging if businesses must close their doors.

Supply Chain Interruptions Have Dangerous Consequences

The pandemic has exposed underlying problems within the fishing industry: Warming ocean temperatures have changed the fish population; overfishing has nearly extinguished some species;18 and U.S. supplies go to foreign markets while imports are sold to U.S. consumers.

Jason Delacruz, fisherman and wholesaler in Florida, spoke to Civil Eats about the current situation. One concern has to do with the snapper and grouper caught in the Gulf of Mexico. The fish are expensive but considered important to restaurants. Losing just 20% of that market could change the way they sell fish.

Meat is currently stable, but prices may rise if farmers go out of business.19 One of the largest meat processors, Tyson, put an exit plan in place nearly four years ago. In 2016, the company launched Tyson Ventures with $150 million. By 2018 they had partnered with four emerging food companies, owning less than 20% in each.

Speaking to the Chicago Tribune, Juston Whitmore, the head of the Tyson Ventures team, acknowledged there had been a shift in corporate goals after the new CEO took over. Tyson's new mission is to be a protein company, not just a meat company. He went on to say:20

“I can’t express enough that we do see a world where there will be multiple types of protein products available. That could include (plant)-based protein next to pork, next to maybe even lab-grown protein and consumers will have a choice."

Beyond Meat is one of the food startups that is moving plant-based products (which resemble meat) into mainstream consumer purchasing outlets.21 Other backers for the plant burger that bleeds like meat are Bill Gates, General Mills venture capital organization and the Humane Society.

The company had its sights set on the fast food market when they named McDonald’s past CEO to their board of directors.22 By 2018, Beyond Meat burgers could be found at Epic Burger in Chicago, TGI Friday's and several grocers.

As if bleeding, plant-based, meat-like burgers isn’t enough, Reese Schroeder, the managing fund director for Tyson Ventures, said the company had a particular interest in automated food technology, which may include:23

"3-D printing of food … It sounds kind of crazy, but there are companies out there trying to do that. There's a lot of cool tech and we're just scratching the surface."

Is It Time to Grow Your Own Food?

This short spoof published in 200924 was one way of preparing the public for the new “cool tech” in edible food, including GMO food and “green alternatives” with documented evidence it uses more resources than regenerative farming.25

Glitches in the distribution of food products compounded by a food supply covered in pesticides and herbicides may be the impetus you need to plant your own garden at home. There are a wide range of personal and community benefits including increasing your activity, strengthening environmental health using organic principles and realizing significant stress reduction.

You don't need a big yard or farm to grow some of your own food. In fact, you can grow sprouts in an apartment near a window and potted vegetables on a balcony. Discover more in, "Is It Time to Start Growing Your Own Food?"