In unstable or war-torn regions, food security is a basic required element for national security stabilization. As a result, the United States and the United Nations spend billions of dollars providing food to the developing world.  In contrast, Western governments spend limited effort or funding on creating resilient and healthy agriculture systems to sustain food security for themselves. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed an ignored truth of the American agriculture system: While the U.S. agricultural system is able to produce more than enough calories for all U.S. citizens, the system may be less resilient than the third-world countries receiving aid. The U.S. food system is a fragile and completely overlooked, yet essential, element of the country’s national security.
The COVID-19 pandemic and efforts to minimize its impacts have cost millions of lives and billions of dollars in the U.S. and the world. The mitigation efforts highlighted a multitude of vulnerabilities in nations around the world, particularly in developed nations’ food systems. In the U.S., grocery stores ran out of toilet paper, bacon, and many other necessary food and commodities. Toilet paper is not a national security issue, but the ability to grow, process, and distribute food is an essential component of the U. S. government’s security oversight for the nation. In support of the fragile agriculture system, former President Donald Trump used the authority of the National Defense Act of 1950 and a series of executive orders to declare agriculture workers and meat industry employees as essential workers.  The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic provide a unique opportunity to examine the fragility of America’s industrialized agriculture system, specifically the meat industry, and provide military specific recommendations.
A FRAGILE SYSTEM
COVID-19 has fundamentally shifted Americans’ access to and availability of food. Before the pandemic, approximately half of the money Americans spent on food was made outside of the home. Since the pandemic began, that number has dropped to approximately 10 percent. Americans are eating less seafood and more snacks, bourbon consumption is up, higher-end wines are down. Hunger is at a historic high not seen since pre-WWII. Farmers worldwide are struggling with the virus and the economy. The vulnerability of the American agriculture system lies in the consolidation of systems at all levels. American agriculture producers have become highly efficient by consolidating over time into corporate farms and single-source distribution systems. This increased system efficiency comes at the cost of overall resiliency. At its base, the industry is dependent on vulnerable workers, monoculture products, and an intricate national distribution system. While this enables consumers nationwide to buy tomatoes from California inexpensively in February, it is a delicately balanced system. From field to fork, each node has proven vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic food supply and distribution frailty.
FARMERS AND FIELD HANDS
American farmer owners and field workers are both vulnerable in the industrialized agriculture system. Since WWII, the general trend in farming has been toward fewer but bigger. Even today the U.S. Department of Agriculture seems to advocate for larger and less diversified farmers, at the expense of smaller farmers. At a dairy conference in 2019, former Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue (2017-2021) stated, “In America the big get bigger and the small go out. I don’t think in America, for any small business, we have a guaranteed income or guaranteed profitability.” This is a worrisome perspective from the senior advisor on agriculture policy. Farmers are vulnerable, as they rely on government crop subsidies, and compound their debt as cash dwindles. As relayed by Secretary Perdue, it appears the Department of Agriculture operates on a mandate of larger farms dependent on subsidies reliant on a large-scale distribution system. For example, to offset possible damage from the Trump administration’s trade war with China the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) created the Market Facilitation Program (MFP). The Environmental Working Group (EWG) determined that “the top 1 percent of farms, the largest agribusinesses in the country, received 16 percent of MFP payments, or more than $3.8 billion. The average total payment for a farm in the top 1 percent was $524,689.” Furthermore, the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) for farmers hurt by the pandemic-induced economic downturn yielded “the top 1 percent of farms got 22 percent of CFAP payments, for an average payment of $352,432.” The overall effect is a weakening of the American food system, as it is reliant on a range of external supports. COVID-19 demonstrated the vulnerability of these external supports. A system geographically dispersed over long distances and reliant on a small number of individuals in questionable economic conditions fundamentally lacks resiliency under any emergency circumstances. Financially secure regionally dispersed farms growing diverse crops are significantly better at providing a resilient source of food for communities.
American writer and farmer Wendell Berry has prophetically advocated for the small farmer system for decades. In an interview in December 2020, Berry argued that the lack of food in grocery stores as the pandemic hit resulted from the decline in the number of local farmers: “If we had kept all the people, we would have been ready for this plague.” According to the 2017 U.S. Agriculture Census released in 2019, the total number of farms and ranches has dropped 3% since 2012. The report data showed there were about 273,000 small farms (1-9 acres) in 2017, representing just 0.1% of all farmland in the U.S. The report added that 85,127 large farms (2,000 or more acres) made up nearly 60% of total farmland.
Larger dairy farms inevitably mean a system less geographically dispersed, larger environmental challenges with farm waste, and a less resilient system. The Institute for New Economic Thinking detailed these impacts in a recent report on the pandemic’s effects on dairy farmers, Spilt Milk: COVID-19 and the Dangers of Dairy Industry Consolidation: “The COVID-19 pandemic led to the collapse in commercial demand as restaurants, caterers, schools and other institutional customers were forced to close. Dairy plants serving supermarkets and grocery stores were already operating at close to full capacity when the coronavirus struck. Capital equipment specialized to produce for commercial customers were incapable of producing for consumers served by supermarkets or food banks. Some farmers had no choice but to dump milk.” For the smaller dairy farmers, international (primarily Canadian) competition and price fluctuations are daily economic challenges.
The old tobacco program is a successful economic model that could provide a model to support local farmers without a reliance on subsidies, including the dairy industry. Berry advocates looking at models that do not require farm subsidies, and cites the tobacco programs from early last century as an example: “the tobacco program combined price support with production control based on parity.” The farm subsidy model barely supports local farmers, often encourages debt, and supports reliance on large agriculture corporations. While attractive sounding in Congress, farm subsidies have evolved over time and now “only large producers can take advantage of them. Out of all the crops that farmers grow, the government only subsidizes five of them: corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and rice.” Such programs provide predictability to small farms, restrict overproduction, and encourage local production. In his book, The Art of Loading Brush, Berry argues, “The principles of the Burley Tobacco Growers Co-op – production control, price supports, service to small as to large producers – are not associated with tobacco necessarily, but are in themselves ethical, reputable, economically sound, and applicable to any agricultural commodity.” Programs for other crops would help reduce reliance on subsidies and encourage smaller local farming.
Farmers also face challenges with labor. In the United States, there is an extreme shortage of domestic farm workers. Americans generally have no desire to work as hired hands in the farm industry. Farmers across the United States rely on immigrant workers to do the majority of the hands-on field harvesting. Efforts to source domestic American labor in the fields have largely failed. Even during the last recession farmers’ efforts to recruit domestic labor failed, as “the work was too hard.” The result is that most of the domestically grown food Americans consume is not planted or harvested by Americans.
According to the USDA roughly half of hired crop farmworkers lack legal immigration status.
Even the USDA recognizes that “legal immigration status is difficult to measure: not many surveys ask the question, and unauthorized respondents may be reluctant to answer truthfully if asked.” This means that the number of undocumented farm workers might exceed what is reported. The next highest category of farm worker is the temporary immigrant covered under the H-2A visa program. This program enables farms to apply for temporary immigrant status based on need and “employers must provide housing for their H-2A workers and pay for their domestic and international transportation.”
Migrant workers have no long-term reliable income or real protections. Their housing and annual incomes are never predictable, and they are under constant threat of deportation. Yet, as a result of the pandemic, they suddenly became “essential.” These workers are essential to almost every aspect of the American agriculture system, but lack of status is a weakness to the very base of the system. That the majority of the food produced in the U.S. relies on an unsecure foreign source of labor is precarious and vulnerable. Without reliable workers, agricultural produce cannot be planted, harvested, and prepared for distribution from the fields.
AN INTRICATE NETWORK
The U.S. agriculture system is highly reliant on an intricate transportation and distribution system. Very few farms are self-sufficient. From seed distribution, pollination, field workers, and the delivery to supermarkets, every aspect of our food is dependent on cross-country movements.
To pollinate most crops, bees are transported across the country on a strict schedule. These bees are reliant on a small corps of beekeepers and the ability to move them continuously across the country regardless of disease or quarantine hot spots. Whole crop species are affected if the bees are delayed or unable to pollinate. The transportation of bees is one small yet significant example of how dependent farming is on the transportation system.
Once the produce leaves the fields it depends on a complex packaging and transportation system. Food prepared for restaurants is not ready for grocery store shelves. Even while there were shortages in grocery stores, food meant for restaurants was rotting in warehouses. As a leading consumer and retail consultant described, “Companies that produce, convert, and deliver food to consumers and businesses face a web of interrelated risks and uncertainties across all steps in the value chain – from farmers to end-customer channels. Food-service suppliers, for example, faced abrupt order cancellations across their entire customer bases. That left many of them with excess stock that they couldn’t easily redirect to consumers because of packaging-size mismatches.”
Most seeds are proprietarily owned, and farmers cannot save seeds from year to year. As cited in a 2009 report and article, “The proprietary seed market (that is, brand-name seed that is subject to exclusive monopoly – i.e., intellectual property) now accounts for 82% of the commercial seed market worldwide.” This means that farmers cannot save the seeds from year to year, and they must purchase new seeds from the corporations annually. These are manufactured, proprietary seeds, for which the farmers do not have any production rights. Any disruption to the centralized production and distribution of seeds would be catastrophic to the entire industry and mean worldwide starvation.
MONOCULTURE: A LACK OF DIVERSITY
Agricultural industrialization’s increased efficiencies have led to historical systematic monoculture in the variety of produce grown and animals raised. Beyond the well-documented environmental impacts – pesticide toxicity, water pollution, erosion, and soil depletion – monoculture is fragile in its lack of biodiversity.  This lack of diversity is twofold: types of varieties within a species and the overall specialization of large farms.
A 2019 UN report notes that of the 6,000 plant species cultivated for food, just nine account for 66% of total crop production. Genetic diversity in farming is important for resiliency and ensuring food security. By growing fewer varieties of essential crops such as corn, tomatoes, and potatoes, the genetic pool for adapting to disease and climate change is lost. Loss of genetic diversity is a well-documented scientific concern for long-term food security. The loss of this diversity is largely driven by proprietary seed production of large biotech companies such as Monsanto. “Seed laws” have evolved that severely restrict local farmers from saving their own seeds, losing the local sources, and forcing farmers to buy from a handful of companies. As Grain, a nonprofit organization supporting local farmers, pointed out, “Today, just 10 companies account for 55% of the global seed market. And the lobbying power of these giants – such as Monsanto, Dow or Syngenta – is very strong. As a result, they have managed to impose restrictive measures giving them monopoly control.” The monopolization and concentration of seed rights is another contributing weakness factor to the system.
The lack of diversity extends to animals raised as food sources as well. Chickens have been bred to unnatural growth specifications with just two main varieties where once American farms raised hundreds of different types of chickens. This lack of diversity in commercial meat chickens is of particular vulnerability if a disease or virus were to spread throughout the industry, such as the avian flu (H51N) outbreak in 2005. IA 2008 Purdue University report noted, “Despite the fact that hundreds of chicken breeds exist … today’s commercial broilers descend from about three lines of chickens, and poultry used in egg production come from only one specialized line.” This lack of diversity in commercial meat chickens is of particular vulnerability if a disease or virus was to spread throughout the industry that millions of people rely on for food. The hog and beef cattle industry has followed suit as well, but to a slightly lesser extent, as there are more laws and regulations governing their raising and slaughter.
The lack of diversity extends from the genome to the farm itself. It is common for farms to dedicate thousands of continuous acres to one food crop. This industrial system is more efficient and profitable, but requires chemical resources that weaken the supporting biological infrastructure. Many of these large farms have evolved to grow single commercial food crops, largely corn and soybeans. Neither of these two commercially grown crops produce food that is directly edible for humans, adding to the production network to process them. In general, corn and soybeans are considered feed crops for industrially raised farm animals. Corn is also used to make ethanol, which according to the USDA “now accounts for nearly 40 percent of total corn use. While the number of feed grain farms (those that produce corn, sorghum, barley, and/or oats) in the United States has declined in recent years, the acreage per corn farm has risen.” Put simply, even though there is plenty of farmland, we are not producing food we can eat now, or could eat in an emergency. Most farm areas, if under strain or in a crisis, could not feed themselves. The combination of crop specialization, fewer farmers, and a decline in grocery stores has created farm deserts in farm country. As noted by the New York Times, “Farm towns … that produce beef, corn and greens to feed the world are becoming America’s unlikeliest food deserts as traditional grocery stores are forced out of business by fewer shoppers and competition from dollar-store chains.”
Agricultural monocultures “putting all the eggs in one basket” could be prime targets for natural blights and manufactured diseases. Just as the DNA of crops and animals have been manipulated to increase yield and growth rates, viruses could conceivably be tailored to target specific seeds and animals raised largely in the United States or by specific companies. With gene editing technology such as CRISPR “clusters of regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats,” an avian flu tailored to American chicken breeds or specific potatoes is technically possible. While the Chinese military is gaining headlines for using gene editing on its own troops, the gene editing of viruses is a possible long-term threat to American industry and agriculture.
THE MEAT LOCKER: WHERE’S THE BEEF?
Consolidation of the meat industry makes the production and distribution of meat particularly fragile. This fragility became clear during the first few months of COVID-19 when many states put “lockdowns” in place for manufacturing and production. The New York Times reported in April 2020 that “meat plants, honed over decades for maximum efficiency and profit, have become major ‘hot spots’ for the coronavirus pandemic, with some reporting widespread illnesses among their workers. The health crisis has revealed how these plants are becoming the weakest link in the nation’s food supply chain, posing a serious challenge to meat production.”
Meat processing has consolidated over time. As of March, 2020, just four companies in the United States controlled over 80% of beef production.” These meat factories, while well-regulated by the USDA, are crowded, loud, and cold, making virus prevention very difficult, and hence highly susceptible to employee-to-employee contamination. While there is little chance of foodborne illness transfer to the meat in the factories, meat processing plants are an employee contagion potential disaster. Many of the meat processing plants are staffed by immigrants who do not speak English or have access to healthcare, which compounds the challenge. This combination does not engender trust with the government or the companies, making infection reporting much less likely.
The most significant limitation to local processing is adequate facilities as defined by the USDA. Current USDA regulations make it difficult and costly for local producers to process and sell meat other than directly to the consumer. Chef and butcher David Wells owns Smoke and Pickles Artisan Butcher shop in Mechanicsburg, Pa., which specializes in locally sourced meats. Wells reported that in order to butcher and sell locally raised meat to local grocery stores and restaurants, his facility would need to meet overly strict standards, pay a USDA inspector for the day, and provide a dedicated office with dedicated restroom for the inspector.
For small to medium processors that have been able to navigate the USDA regulations, the trickle-down effects of COVID-19 have increased demand significantly. For example, Appalachian Meats, one of the only meat processors in Eastern Kentucky that is USDA compliant and conducts custom processing for retail and wholesale, cannot keep up with demand and has experienced a 50% increase directly attributable to COVID-19. As of December 2020, hog processing was scheduled over four months out and beef processing was scheduled over 12 months out. According to the owner Marlin Gerber, they could schedule 24 months out with the current demand.
Even in light of the regulatory restrictions and producers’ backlogs, individual farmers are working to fill the gap with traditional methods. A result of the pandemic was the practice of selling off pigs they were not able to butcher to novice farmers and home butchers. This, combined with the small but growing niche of heritage breed hog raising by small local farmers, further stretched a network of small-scale meat butchers already hamstrung by USDA and Food and Drug Administration regulations geared towards the larger meat industry. The result created an abundance of hogs without knowledgeable people to harvest them.
The Kentucky Agriculture Commission recognized the facility limitations for local farmers, the system vulnerability, and in October 2020 Commissioner Dr. Ryan Quarles sent a letter to Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear “requesting that he allocate $2 million from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to expand meat processing in Kentucky and reduce reliance upon out-of-state meat processors.” Beshear accepted the proposal.
The issue drew bipartisan concern nationally, as Sens. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) sought regulatory relief from Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. “When high-capacity processing facilities experienced outbreaks amongst employees, operations were forced to shut-off or slow down production, leaving the rancher with livestock they could not move and the consumer with either empty grocery shelves or overpriced products. These pitfalls can be avoided in the future if we take action today to promote a diversified food supply chain.” The senators called for streamlined regulations to remove barriers to small- and medium-sized meat processors.
There is very little accommodation in USDA and most state regulations for local butchers. The current system is not tiered; the requirements are the same for the large-scale producers (40,000+ chickens a day) as for the small local processors. The provisions for cured meats (more profitable for butchers) are even more restrictive, requiring equipment and plans that have little to do with actual food safety. Diversifying meat processing by geography, scale, and product builds resilience in the system. It will also enable local economies and communities to establish niche character products, such as regions in Europe that have specialty cured meats. Increasing the numbers of local producers will not replace the large industrial meat factories, but will increase variety and quality. This would also increase access to meat products in times of food shortages or transportation issues within the fragile system.
ON FOOD STRATEGY: A MILITARY PERSPECTIVE
The security of the nation’s food supply is a national security concern that has been given little attention or planning. Even Wendell Berry, a lifelong pacifist, has begun thinking of food as a security issue, stating, “It seems preposterous to me that we should maintain an enormously expensive armory of weapons… ready to defend a country in which most people live far from sources of their food.” Attention and planning for the security of the food system includes the security of the country and how to sustain military power without access to the current fragile system.
“Defending the Homeland” is a central theme of the 2018 Defense Strategy, and securing America’s infrastructure is critical and a responsibility under Titles 10 and 32. Few military plans incorporate a full breakdown of the U.S. transportation and agriculture system. COVID-19 has exacerbated America’s food security crises, in terms of access to food. A Northwestern University report from summer of 2020 found that due to COVID-19 “food insecurity has doubled overall, and tripled among households with children.” A stricter national lockdown or disruption to the system would logically exacerbate food insecurity across the United States. Civil unrest is a likely result for which state and national officials should consider now to plan the advent of widespread food insecurity.
The American military preparation plans include disruptions to energy and water vulnerabilities. To this end, the Army’s energy and water goal for installations is a minimum 14-day independence from local sources to reduce risk to critical missions. Given the food system vulnerabilities, there should be a similar requirement for sustenance. In a review of the military response to COVID-19, Tell Me How This Ends: The US Army in the Pandemic Era highlights the need to develop a long-term solution for sustaining soldiers in garrison during emergencies and recommends stockpiling food supplies. In planning for a likely scenario of further disruptions to the agricultural supply, the long-term solutions need to apply beyond garrison to include all service members and their families, on and off post, at home and abroad. The solutions should go beyond merely stockpiling, and include deliberate planning for building resiliency into garrison food supplies through increased sourcing from the local economy.
The USDA is not listed as a military interagency partner in the National Defense Strategy, although the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) partners on a variety of supply issues that includes food for schools. While most military garrisons are located in rural communities with accessible farm economies, the DLA’s Subsistence Supply Chain currently incorporates only about 15% of local products into dining facilities and schools. The Department of Defense should establish policies that enable local managers to develop relationships with state cooperative agencies and facilitate connections to local farmers. Dining facilities should also be encouraged to reserve space for local products and producers. Most state agriculture commissions also have programs dedicated to promoting local farming efforts, and they could team with military installations to establish and strengthen ties to local farmers.
Military installation land and resident populations could serve as a bridge to the local farming communities building resilient networks. To start, installations should host farmers’ markets and allow Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) on post. Current agreements with the Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES) and Defense Commissary Agency (DECA) restrict access to these local programs. Some smaller military depots allow animal grazing and farming, but there is no coordinated policy to encourage agriculture use on installations. The Department of Defense should establish policies to encourage agricultural use of unused land. Most installations worldwide spend millions of dollars on grass cutting and field maintenance. Ft Knox, for instance, spends $2.4 million annually on lawn maintenance of non-residential areas. Local farmers could maintain that same land generating hay and or crops for local use. Goats and sheep are growing in popularity as an alternative to grass cutting around the world. Grazing versus cutting is more environmentally friendly in several ways, to include fire prevention, and could serve as a local meat source. Allowing local farmers to cultivate unused land and graze animals improves connections with local farmers that would be needed in times of emergency.
TO WHAT END
Former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said that “food security is a key component of national security, because hunger and peace do not long coexist.” While an accurate statement and an admirable start, his focus on food security was clearly on making farms bigger, and his priorities never addressed local farming. A fragile system reliant on such a complex centralized network system can never be truly secure. Italy provides a unique example as to a hybrid system that incorporates large-scale agriculture and locally sourced products. While hardest hit in Europe, Italy did not have the empty shelves or supply disruptions to the extent experienced in the U.S. This is largely due to town markets and locally sourced butcher shops common across the country. For example, Macelleria I Buoni Sapori, a butcher shop in Northern Italy, continued to supply its vast array of products because even the chickens, beef and hog products were locally sourced and prepared in the shop. Italy’s regulations favor the smaller producer and local butcher. This combination of protectionism and support could be re-created here in the United States.
It is imperative for national security to make a deliberate effort to encourage local produce, livestock raising and meat processing. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic the issue is truly a national and strategic concern. President Joseph R. Biden’s pick for Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, does not appear any different from his predecessor. Vilsack previously served as Agriculture secretary in the Obama administration, and was lauded by big agriculture on the announcement of his selection again. His critics specifically point to his lack of support for local farms.
As COVID-19 “hot spots” of virus transmission broke out in California and Washington state, whole counties were shut down to prevent the spread of the virus. While these disruptions were temporary, an uncontrolled outbreak or more severe disaster would significantly impact farm production and transportation of food across the country resulting in extreme shortages, starvation, and civil unrest. A prolonged emergency that restricts movement and access to food will quickly evolve into a domestic security crisis.
In light of COVID-19, both the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Defense need to look at protecting the nation’s food supply in a new and holistic perspective to prepare for the next serious disruption. The Department of Defense can start building resiliency at the local levels. The new administration must focus onnational agriculture policies and military preparedness plans that need significant review to prepare America’s food system and to prevent future disasters.
- Establish planning exercises between the Department of Defense and U.S. Department of Agriculture
- Create programs enabling new farmers to farm unused land on military installations
- Require military installations to access local food sources for contingency just as required for water and power
- Allow farmers’ markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs access to military installations.
- Establish a program between military installations and state agriculture agencies to partner on increasing local food access
- Adjust USDA meat processing regulations to a tiered model.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a warning and wake up call to address the fragility of the agriculture system. It will require a combined, interagency approach with Congressional assistance. At a minimum, the military should start deliberate planning for redundancies similar to other installation resources. For the basic security of the United States, the fragile agriculture system cannot continue to be ignored.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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