The Coming Food Crisis

Written by John Hoffman

I am not sure that leaders at all levels fully appreciate the grave danger we face with our food supply, our economy and our nation. The food system in the United States represents one sixth of our economy. Historically, as the food system goes, so goes the economy. The national food infrastructure has always had a direct impact on confidence in government.

Many in our nation face growing food supply insecurity today. This is particularly true in the large cities. Today we have broad shortages that are in the range of 20% of key protein products.  Food prices are rising as a consequence of production cuts that have created these shortages and supply disruptions. This is all the result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the failure of the federal interagency team to take the necessary steps to assure full access to the things every family needs every day.  What we are seeing today need not have been the case. 

What was needed in February during the initial unfolding of events within this pandemic, and what is still needed, is much more intensive interagency response–as required by law.  A clear example of an early pandemic preparation and response failure was the total lack of functional coordination between USDA, FDA and DHS regarding the food supply chain (as outlined in the existing pandemic plans).  

The disturbing truth is that authoritative and informed sector specialists in industry and academia, as well as several states, informed DHS, FEMA and the interagency at the federal level of what was coming as early as February, and how to avoid its consequences. There is a pandemic plan in place that outlined the steps needed but it was disregarded from the outset. It is indefensible that Emergency Support Function # 11 (Agriculture) within the National Disaster Response System was not stood up from the beginning of the pandemic response.  

Broad national public health guidance has been so inconsistent and variable that people are simply confused and frustrated. DHS has been so focused on arguing about when where and how to use its authorities under the Stafford Act and other legislation that critical actions have not been initiated. The USDA leadership has been so focused on its marketing dogma: “there is plenty of food” and reluctance to take affirmative action when it counted, that it has largely failed the nation as a Lead Federal Agency.  It is now June, unemployment and food supply issues persist.  

It is clear that all must understand, we now have an “American Spring”.  The danger to our nation is real. The loss of gainful employment, the fear of food shortages, employees fearful of going to work in food plants–from meat processors to pastry makers–and prices climbing nearly 20% have provided a fertile environment for broad discontent with government. 

While it may be too late to avert all of the coming consequences of an adverse economic shift and food system decline, it is not too late for leaders at all levels to make a difference. The nation no longer has the time to tolerate the political bickering, inconsistent national response to the pandemic and the failure to take care of people first!