Every day there are lessons to be learned. At this level of crisis there are bound to be ancillary challenges that arise – challenges that were not obvious until the domino theory took hold. The farm to table movement of the past two decades was, on the surface, a return to supporting local growers and producers, but the core of this initiative was far more significant. It became obvious to some that putting all of our eggs in one basket was not a wise decision for our country, a decision that could lead to a breakdown of the food production/distribution system if conditions turned sour. Climate change, depletion of soil nutrients, over-use of chemicals in agriculture, carbon footprint issues driven by the methods of distribution, quality issues driven by farming methods that were controlled by demand rather than seasonality, the threat of agri-terrorism, and/or the inevitable appearance of a public health issue (pandemic) were looming potential problems that could devastate a centralized production/distribution system. To some (not enough) people – the answer was a return to a de-centralized system where end users found their food supplies from local and regional producers – where seasonality and use of indigenous ingredients to an area drove menus in the home and in the restaurant. If we failed to move in this direction then a crisis could bring things to a halt – sooner or later the bottom would fall out. So, in 2020 this is exactly where we are.
The domino effect can be described as follows:
“Domino effect describes a situation in which one event triggers another similar event and then another, until there is a cascade of events that occur, all because of the first, precipitating event.”
We are living in a vivid example of the domino theory. The coronavirus is testing the stability of every system that man has created. The question is: “how will our systems fare? Will our systems stand the stress test or will they crumble?” As we focus on food production and distribution it is easy to see how quickly stress caused by the pandemic (the first domino) is threatening the way that we grow, produce, distribute, and use those food ingredients that we depend on. As an example – centralized meat packing plants are devastated by the spread of the virus – some of those plants are closing down until the spread can be controlled.
There are four companies in the U.S. that control 85% of the meat market. Americans consume over 50 billion pounds of meat each year and these four companies control 42 billion of those pounds. These same phenomena can be applied to almost every aspect of food production and processing in the U.S. The underlying rule of thumb for those who are in the business of food is: “Go big or go home.” Profit comes from volume and control of market segments. This is efficient and well supported on paper as a solid way to manage business, but it creates incredible vulnerabilities.
So, some of the meat processing plants have succumb to the virus and partially closed their operations. Suddenly the meat supply is impacted and consumers feel the pinch in the supermarket. Restaurants are forced to close to slow the spread of the virus and flatten the curve. As a result, demand for meat is reduced putting additional stress on the packaging system and directly impacting ranchers who now find that the market for their cattle, pigs, and chickens is reduced. Out of necessity they are forced to euthanize some of their animals. Everyone suffers – sick employees, ranchers struggling to make ends meet, distributor sales tank, and end consumers are faced with empty meat shelves in grocery stores leading to hoarding and further panic over availability. Similar problems rise up in agriculture as dairy farmers are faced with a diminished market for their product with the restaurant business in shutdown. Milk is being dumped because of its short shelf life while millions of Americans find it difficult to feed their families as jobs have instantly disappeared. People are in lockdown at home so to help fill time and alleviate some of the problems with food availability begin to bake bread at home putting overnight strains on the market for flour. Without enough regional flour mills – the supply is suddenly tapped out and consumers can’t even find all-purpose flour on grocery shelves. There is plenty of grain, just not enough capacity for milling since centralized mills forced many of those regional operations to shut down decades ago. The dominos are falling and the system is crumbling and struggling to find ways to keep up.
“Necessity is the mother of invention.”
One of mankind’s historic strengths has been adaptation and correction after a crisis occurs. We adapted and corrected after World War II, after the Great Depression, after numerous recessions, following the tragedy of 9/11, and in reaction to the market crash of 2008. We will adapt and correct after Covid-19. Unfortunately, history has shown that it is far less common to find proactive planning to eliminate the inevitability of crisis. It is likely that our food system will adapt at some level and it is also likely that those who drive this change will be in a better position to survive and thrive.
At some point a new version of the restaurant industry will rise up. Those who will be positioned for success will be restaurants that advocate for a redefined distribution model. Call it farm to table if you like, but it will be more than that. It will likely be a return to decentralization – an environment where chefs not only buy local, but where menus are driven by seasonality, not a reliance on buying and serving anything, any time of the year, regardless of origin. This will be an environment where problems in the system can be isolated by region or locale, and managed properly. This will be an environment where market conditions, even during a crisis, are viewed as regional, not global challenges. Everything needs to be reassessed to avoid the domino effect in the future. This is a systemic approach that is based on an understanding that any action will impact another, and some actions can impact everything.
Just an opinion: Food for thought.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
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