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May 7, 2020

Ask the expert: Should we fear a food shortage?

Trey Malone, assistant professor and extension economist in the Department of Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics, answers questions about the report of meat shortages as a result of the pandemic.

Tyson Foods has warned of meat shortages. How worried should the average consumer be?

The U.S. food system isn’t running out of animal proteins any time soon. Just because there might be shortages in specific cuts doesn’t translate to a massive food shortage more generally. The system isn’t “breaking,” it’s flexing. JBS USA has already started developing a stronger international supply chain and poultry production is still strong. I would be more concerned if protectionism takes root, but at least in the United States, we haven’t gone that direction yet.

We’ve seen a lot of reporting on why these issues are happening? What are we missing?

We’re missing the back end of the closures. Just because a plant stops producing for a period of time doesn’t mean the plant has been destroyed. For example, the Greeley, Colo., plant received a lot of attention when it closed down a few weeks ago. It came back online last week prior to President Trump’s executive order that meat plants must remain open, but the reopening garnered much less media attention. Testing capacity is still a major constraint, but processors across the country are implementing additional protective measures for their workers – which is also not getting enough coverage.

Many wonder if seasonal deer processors can help resolve the issue. Is that feasible?

While seasonal deer processing is an exciting proposition, I’m afraid the folks considering this option are missing the scale of the problem. Converting deer processors would be like using an umbrella during a monsoon. For example, U.S. pork processing capacity is somewhere around 500,000 hogs per day. The processing capacity slowdown is somewhere around 200,000 hogs a day. No deer processor I’m aware of could put a dent in that number.

Will the food supply chain need to change? Should it change?

This is the one million-dollar question. I think it will change toward more automation and reducing labor needs, though this has been the trend for more than a century. I would love to say that small, local systems will be able to pick up the slack in the system, but I’m afraid that is unlikely to happen.

Smaller grocers seem to be better stocked. Why?

People are trying to limit their trips to stores, so it makes sense to go somewhere you can buy everything all at once. Consider the foot traffic data for grocery stores. I think we’re just seeing more of a demand push at larger retailers while the explosion in demand hasn’t necessarily pushed smaller retailers.

The shortage is driving many to garden and seek out more local food. Is this a local foods moment? Why?

This is definitely a local foods moment. People are reassessing where their food comes from, and it is encouraging all of us to learn more about how to grow our own produce. I think we’re all going to learn how hard it is to be self-sufficient, which will hopefully translate to a deeper appreciation for what agricultural producers do across the country. We’re definitely seeing it in local food sales, such as Community Supported Agricultural systems.

Which types of ag businesses stand to benefit the most when this is all over?

Unfortunately, I think we are going to see an additional hollowing out of the middle. The big farms are more likely to be able to withstand this short-term pain, and strain on midsize farms has already been brutal over the past few years. Dairy farms are probably the biggest example of this trend; we have dropped from around 3,500 producers in 1999 to fewer than 1,200 in January 2020. The way forward for small producers is probably more on the value-added side, along with a substantial amount of off-farm income.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I’ve been frustrated to see how many articles have claimed that this pandemic is a sign that our food system is “broken.” The frustrating irony is that those writers have also been able to maintain a healthy diet for months while we are in the midst of the greatest supply chain disruption of our lifetime. When even Saturday Night Live is pointing out how many items are left on grocery store shelves, you have to wonder what the deal is with the fearmongering.

By: Kim Ward

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