Regional Food Security in the Age of COVID-19 and Climate Change
I first sat down to write this blog post in March, before the world had turned upside down and our lives were radically changed due to the coronavirus pandemic. The gist of the original post was that regions must begin to invest now in building up their local food infrastructure to increase their self reliance, since climate change will bring disruptions to the global food system that we have grown accustomed to.
Now, over a month later, that still rings true.
The flaws in our global food system have been starkly exposed as the rise of the global pandemic has interrupted supply chains, forced businesses to close, and endangered front line workers who move goods to consumers around the world. Never more than in this moment has, the importance of strong regional food systems been so apparent.
Never more than in this moment has, the importance of strong regional food systems been so apparent.
COVID-19 impacts on our food system
Over a dozen meat packing plants have been shut down recently, predicated by the April 13 closure of the Smithfield pork plant in South Dakota, which handles 5% of U.S. pork production, after more than half of its staff contracted coronavirus. Many more closures loom and economists warn of meat shortages on the horizon. The health crisis unfolding inside these plants only serves to magnify the unsafe and inhumane conditions workers have been subjected to for years in the handful of massive facilities that handle a majority of the meat consumed in the U.S..
Meanwhile across Pennsylvania, dairy farmers have been dumping milk down the drain as demand has dropped drastically due to schools and other institutional purchasers closing. Regional processors intervened and are now bottling thousands of gallons for donation to local food banks, as thousands more people are struggling with food insecurity due to lost wages and unemployment.
Food system impacts of climate change
These supply chain disruptions are a preview of what’s to come with climate change, as evolving agricultural conditions threaten our ability to grow food the way we’ve been doing it over the last several decades.
We’re already seeing the start of these changes: Northwest Michigan, a region where we work, experienced a dismal cherry season last year, given a quadruple threat of environmental stressors that struck almost simultaneously: 1) a cool late spring which caused a delayed start to the growing season; 2) a larger than average presence of a fungus that yellows leaves and renders them unable to photosynthesize, exacerbated by heavy spring rains; 3) the arrival of invasive Asian fruit flies during the peak of harvest season; and 4) several summer hail storms that damaged those cherries that did manage to grow. These unpredictable and unusual weather patterns threaten Northwest Michigan’s competitive advantage in cherry production, which has been historically a huge economic driver for the region.
In the face of increasing occurrence of such events, how can individual communities and regions ensure they are prepared?
One way regions can ensure food security for their future is by making necessary investments in infrastructure that can support the local food industry, such as processing facilities, aggregation and distribution hubs, indoor growing technologies, and innovations in precision agriculture. “Harvesting Opportunity: The Power of Regional Food System Investments to Transform Communities,” a report released by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis in 2017, cites the importance of investing in regional food enterprises as a way to promote healthy economies and financial stability, but also as a matter of national security, given our national food system’s dependence on energy and transportation for the production and distribution of food. Regions should commit to forming and funding more robust, localized systems to mitigate the potential systemic threats that result from such dependance and promote self reliance.
We know it is hard to think about the long term in the face of the immediate and devastating impacts COVID-19 has wrought on our communities, businesses, and workers. However, we think it is more important than ever to be planning for a strong economic future - climate change is the next big crisis and its impacts will be even more wide reaching. Get in touch - if you’re curious about how your region can invest in infrastructure to support community food security and the local food economy, we would love to help you strategize about how to strengthen your regional food system.