The last several months have been interesting, to say the least. Many of us are navigating treacherous and uncharted waters as we attempt to protect ourselves and our neighbors from a worldwide pandemic. While there will be many lessons to learn from this experience, I would like to focus on one, the complexity, resiliency and strength of the food supply in Arizona and across America.
It’s something most people take for granted, and why not; we have the most abundant, affordable and safe food supplies in the world. But in the days leading up to and the days following the announcement that we were dealing with a worldwide pandemic and people faced the reality they may need to limit their interaction with the outside world, they showed us what was really important: FOOD, and strangely toilet paper.
The run to stock up on essentials left the shelves empty of fresh meat, milk and eggs. Canned goods flew off the shelves and in some cases the volume of fresh fruit and produce purchased by consumers increased dramatically. At the same time, they were rushing to buy products from their grocery store, the volume of product purchases through foodservice (restaurants, schools and hotels) sharply decreased.
These recent events have peeled back the hood on our system and made people think about and recognize how complex it really is. There are numerous steps in the food supply chain from the production of the products, to the processing, warehousing, shipping, distribution and sale of those products.
To bring them to the final consumer, food products must be produced and distributed at a similar rate as they will be consumed. To reduce waste and offer the freshest product possible, our retail grocery stores stock only the product that they can reasonably expect to sell in a few days. In turn, the entire supply chain is built around that volume. When that volume goes up unexpectedly, and across the entire system, it takes time for that system to catch up and while the same amount of food is being produced, it takes time for it to be processed and distributed.
There is also capacity to consider. Our supply chains have been developed and refined over decades to create an efficient, just-in-time delivery system in the volume they are needed to the various market outlets. Large volumes of products destined for restaurants or cafeterias cannot be easily repackaged and sold for individual consumers. There was always enough food in the system to meet the demand, just not in the correct packaging, quantities, or step in the supply chain to pivot to meet the demand.
This too is remarkable given the production of food cannot be increased with the flip of a switch. The beef that was brought to market often started that journey more than two years prior. After all, it takes time for cattle to grow and be ready for harvest. Milk comes from cows that have reached an age of maturity to produce it. We cannot grow more mature cattle overnight and we cannot tell a chicken to lay more eggs. In agriculture, we operate on the timelines Mother Nature gives us and she cares little for financial markets or fluctuating demand from consumers.
In the wake of these announcements, Arizona’s farmers and ranchers continued to produce the products needed to refill the shelves. We worked with our regulatory agencies and decision-makers to ensure the movement of labor necessary to harvest that product and continue the transportation of those products to the grocery store. Indeed, from the White House to the Department of Homeland Security, to Governor Ducey, decision-makers recognized the essential nature of the agriculture industry in emergency declarations, guidance and executive orders.
We were able to respond quickly and keep the products flowing to markets to the capacity our current system allowed with only temporary interruption. For a moment imagine a world where that food supply came exclusively from a different state or a different country and whether we would have witnessed the same resiliency.
So, now what do we do with this knowledge? Once we recognize the food we eat is the product of collective decisions made years ago we must also acknowledge the decisions we make today will impact that food supply years from now. As we consider new policies that may have an impact on agriculture, I would encourage all of us to remember the challenges posed by even a temporary disruption in the food system.
A resilient and local agriculture industry is essential to food security in times of crisis. Let’s be sure our decisions are the right ones and that they don’t jeopardize that system because we may well regret it the next time we face adversity.
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the October 2020 issue of Arizona Agriculture. A version of this article also appeared in Arizona Capitol Times.