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The Supply Chain is Broken
How Do We Fix it?

Our Food Supply Chain is Broken. Here's How to Fix It

We live in remarkable times. In the past, we secured food only by going out into the wild to hunt and gather. Today, we can find almost any food we want by walking into a grocery store.

Yet a grocery store shelf is just one step in food's long journey to your plate. Behind the scenes, a series of stages and spaces enable food to get from source to consumer in what's known as the food supply chain.

A reliable, resilient food supply chain — which is now being challenged by climate change, labor issues, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic — is essential to promoting and sustaining public health.

Experts we spoke to, however, believe the United States’ food supply chain relies on complicated logistics and inequitable practices, which contribute to the current food supply crisis. It’s a process they say is fundamentally broken.

That doesn’t mean there’s no solution, though. Here’s how some thought leaders and advocates believe America’s food supply chain can be fixed, improved, and hopefully, sustained for good.

Untangling an Intricate System

Food supply chains are complex systems. They can include fields, factories, warehouses, and storage facilities that transform raw agricultural crops to products ready for consumption.

It’s a robust network that relies on 19.7 million full- and part-time jobs in the agricultural and food industries, according to 2020 data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)'s Economic Research Service.

Due to its sheer size, if one link in the chain breaks down, it can cause loss of product and an increase in costs for all parts of the supply chain — not to mention food safety and accessibility concerns.

That’s why Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern, PhD, an associate professor and the graduate program director of food studies at Syracuse University, is concerned about the long-term sustainability of America’s food supply chain and those who make it possible.

As the author of “The New American Farmer: Immigration, Race, and the Struggle for Sustainability,” a book examining the experiences of Latino farmworkers in the United States, Minkoff-Zern believes the issue lies in a loss of understanding of how the food supply chain works as an integrated system, rather than distinct processes.

“We've lost touch with who's doing the work to produce our food because we've become so alienated from that process,” Minkoff-Zern says.

Food supply is a long journey that starts with production. Farmers, fishers, and ranchers cultivate, catch, and breed plants and animals to provide sustenance for an ever-increasing population.

When we talk about food systems, we're not just talking about the actual food products themselves. We're talking about the people, we're talking about the natural resources, we're talking about environments, we're talking about social and material spaces. We're talking about communities.

Next up is food processing. Raw ingredients are transformed into edible food products that are packaged, marketed, and distributed — anything from a meatpacking plant to a bakery to a canning facility,” says Minkoff-Zern.

Eventually, food is stored before it reaches the distribution stage, protecting it from spoilage due to exposure to air, liquids, or other contaminants.

The transportation sector then moves food to the marketplace. Food must be transported securely and swiftly to arrive in peak condition.

“When we talk about food systems, we're not just talking about the actual food products themselves,” Minkoff-Zern explains. “We're talking about the people, we're talking about the natural resources, we're talking about environments, we're talking about social and material spaces.”

“We're talking about communities.”

Why the Current  Supply Chain Just Doesn't Work

With many grocery stores facing empty shelves and a shortage of products, the coronavirus pandemic has increased our awareness of how vulnerable the food supply chain really is. 

Others, however, see the pandemic as the straw that broke the camel's back — simply exposing preexisting flaws in a system that was already failing.

These are some of the challenges currently impacting the United States’ food supply chain.


Delays and losses

“A lot of it has to do with food miles — the length that our food has to go — to get from the point of production to consumption,” Minkoff-Zern says about the biggest contributing factors in the food supply chain crisis.

Food miles refer to the distance that your food travels from its source, such as a farm to your plate. Depending on the type of food, these miles can rack up — especially if your food has to travel internationally via plane. This sets the stage for delays and losses.

Handling and storage during shipment can also lead to significant spoilage and food waste. Managerial and technical difficulties can contribute to food loss as well, causing further delays in a journey that relies heavily on a timely completion of all steps in the process.

Labor issues

Employees working in large facilities that leave them vulnerable to illness, poor working conditions, lack of benefits, and low wages create ongoing labor issues that impact the food supply chain.

People are a critical part of this chain's success. Therefore, when a calamity like a pandemic strikes — and thousands of people become sick, pass away, or leave their jobs due to poor working conditions — the chain can break down rapidly.

Exploitative labor conditions also contribute to a vulnerable food system.

In this highly centralized food system, big corporations, such as seed companies, processing firms, and even international corporate food chains, reap most of the profits.

According to Minkoff-Zern, more than 80 percent of farmworkers in the United States are immigrants, the “vast majority” of whom live in the country without documentation.

“You're looking at a population that's incredibly politically vulnerable,” she says. “Farmers already get very little of the food dollar. Most of the money we pay for food goes toward processors and retailers.”

Minkoff-Zern says that farmers themselves are at the bottom of the food chain economically. “They're the most vulnerable to climatic swings, economic swings, and changes in trade.”

Minkoff-Zern says that farmers themselves are at the bottom of the food chain economically.

In this highly centralized food system, big corporations, such as seed companies, processing firms, and even international corporate food chains, reap most of the profits. With little focus on workers’ rights, the consequences to health and safety can be dire.

Similarly, gender inequalities abound. “Women are overrepresented across the entire food system,” Minkoff-Zern points out. In addition to low wages, lack of benefits, and poor working conditions, the system is also rife with sexual harassment.

Environmental concerns

Like many other sectors, the food system is consistently influenced by environmental shifts.

Agricultural food production is threatened by “anthropogenic issues,” or environmental harms brought about by human activity. These include climate change, deforestation, soil erosion, drought, among others.

In fact, climate change is expected to significantly influence agricultural practices in the United States over time, as temperature and rainfall patterns may limit the types and quantities of crops we can grow.

These are some of the most critical environmental aspects to consider when producing food that is high quality, safe, and promotes diverse and nutritious diets, according to experts:

Land and water access. We can't have food security without long-term access to land and water to produce food. It's important to ensure that our farming practices don't cause further harm to natural resources — especially as we face climate change, which affects their viability.

Food waste at a farm level. Farms continue to be an overlooked hotspot of waste, which contributes to massive levels of environmental degradation and exacerbates food insecurity.

The decline in biodiversity. Increased deforestation for crop expansion and livestock farming reduces biodiversity, or the variety of types of plants and animals in the world. Because of the ways these organisms interact, biodiversity provides us with clean air, fresh water, and quality soil with which to grow food.

The importance of food varieties. Growing the same types of crops year after year makes food supply vulnerable and exacerbates climate change. Crop diversity can help preserve sustainability by allowing soil to acclimate to environmental changes, resulting in healthy, resilient crops.

Traditional and Indigenous diets. Food security is an important aspect of human health. It's critical to ensure that culturally appropriate, nutritious foods are accessible to everyone. 

Social disparities and food insecurity

Even though our current system allows for more food production than ever, there’s still a scarcity of nutritious and affordable food — especially among low income communities and Communities of Color, with notable differences in rural and urban areas.

About 1 in 8 Americans were food insecure in 2018. That's 37 million people, including more than 11 million children.

Food insecurity has serious effects on children and families, impacting their overall health and time spent at school and work. As a global concern, food justice is one critical framework for evaluating how sustainable and equitable a food system is — for both producers and consumers.

“There are rights and resources within a society, which are limited in terms of how people can access them,” says Dr. Damien Thompson, an assistant professor and the Sustainable Food Systems Specialization Lead in the Masters of the Environment program at the University of Colorado, Boulder. 

“When we talk about justice, we're actually talking about the more equitable distribution of rights and resources.”

According to Thompson, who’s also the co-founder of FrontLine Farming, a women- and Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC)-led food justice and farmer advocacy group, food justice discourse isn't actually about equality. Instead, it's about equity and what people need for basic living. 

We're trying to figure out how to leverage resources, how to leverage community power to make real change on that structural, institutional level.

This means taking communities into account and recognizing the unique needs of those who’ve been denied access to adequate nutrition by the current food system. 

Inequitable processes influence all aspects of the food supply chain. It results in disparate outcomes, such as poor availability and affordability of food — especially nutritious options — and a surplus of highly processed foods that are low in nutritional value.

Food apartheid is an example of this. People use this term to describe the limited access to healthy food, farming, and access to food education available in some regions that came about due to racist policies. Some people outside of the food justice framework refer to these locations as “food deserts”.


Those marginalized by sex, gender, and sexuality are underserved by the food system as well. Women and LGBTQIA+ folks are more likely than their male and cisgender and heterosexual counterparts to face food insecurity.

Indigenous people are also far more likely to experience food insecurity than white Americans, Black Americans, or Hispanic Americans. Between 25 and 92 percent of Native households report food insecurity, according to advocacy group Move for Hunger. And according to one study, a majority of people said that they lacked access to culturally appropriate native foods that they wanted.

Some reports show this is due to power imbalances and discriminatory practices. “We're trying to figure out how to leverage resources, how to leverage community power,” Thompson explains, “to make real change on that structural, institutional level.”

Reform or rebuild?

According to Thompson, today's food supply system is built upon historic injustices and discrimination, such as genocide, enslavement, Indigenous land theft, colonization, and cultural collapse. It’s a system that many experts say needs to be rebuilt.

“We cannot continue… to utilize the same systems that have put us in this predicament,” Thompson says.

The idea behind rebuilding the system stems from the notion that people should have the right and freedom to choose and control their own food systems, including markets, production methods, cultural customs, and environments. This concept is known as food sovereignty.

“A big part of sovereignty is liberation,” Thompson explains.

Although the rights of people are at the forefront of food sovereignty, it's only one issue. Respect for the land is an essential factor as well.

“Food [should be] produced in a way that's ecologically sound,” he says, “or even ecologically regenerative.”

Creating a Food Supply System that Won't Break

With a changing climate, disruptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and an imbalance of workers’ rights, it’s critical to debate what it truly means to have a safe, nutritious, and sustainable supply of food.

The biggest question, however, is whether the building blocks of today’s food supply chain can achieve those goals. "They don't work for the planet, they don't work for people,” Thompson explains. “They've destroyed communities.”

Changes are underway, though, that may set us on a better course. Here are a few.

Increased community action

The movement to transform the food system takes into account who controls our food, how it's being controlled, and issues surrounding natural resources. Many organizations are calling for land reform, which can help speed up the transition to regenerative agriculture.

According to Regeneration International, regenerative agriculture is a practice of “farming and grazing that, among other things, reverses climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring damaged soil biodiversity — leading to carbon removal and improving the water cycle.”

Several other organizations, such as Aranya Agricultural Alternatives, Grounded, and Kiss the Ground, are also inspiring regenerative agriculture across the globe.

However, change will ultimately depend on individuals taking action. This can include community-driven decision making, growing food in regenerative ways, and supporting farmers to create equitable solutions while pursuing systemic change.

FrontLine Farming, a group co-founded by Thompson, strives to do just that.

The organization addresses food insecurity through programs like Healing Foods, a food donation program, and no-cost grocery programs.

While championing food justice and sovereignty, FrontLine Farming also supports legislative efforts to bring about change in the current food system.

This work entails raising awareness of farm bill policies and how they can be applied to support small farmers and Farmers of Color in acquiring land.


What is the farm bill?

The farm bill is the U.S. government's key piece of legislation for agriculture, conservation, rural development, and other related areas. It’s renewed every 5 years.

This bill is the food and agricultural system's foundation. It establishes the groundwork for a sustainable farming approach, beginning farmer training, crop insurance for farmers, and more.

Since 1973, the farm bill has extended its focus beyond farms and now supports other policy areas affecting the agricultural sector, with a broader range of stakeholders in the negotiation process.

There are other community efforts taking place:

  • Nonprofit grocery stores are an increasingly popular model. They were founded to provide affordable, nutritious food to neighborhood residents.
  • Food cooperatives catalyze local food systems and support communities by buying and selling local food. Employees receive equitable pay and have a voice in all decision making, fostering a sense of ownership within the workplace and food ecosystem.

Championing structural reform

When it comes to food justice and equity issues, we need to think about those who are at the forefront of growing and producing our food.

This can be achieved by “centering workers and People of Color and immigrants that are the backbone of the food system, and looking to them to see where the solution should come from,” Minkoff-Zern says.

Underlying structural issues and the true profiters of the food system should also be investigated. Minkoff-Zern says that advocates are considering how to raise the minimum wage, get rid of tipped wages, regulate corporations, and make healthy food accessible to food system workers. 

This and larger systemic changes, of course, will take time — but it’s not impossible.

What a Food System of the Future Could Look Like

To create a sustainable and fair food system in the future, practicing equitable distribution of food based on need rather than profit margins or privilege will be a priority.

Food sovereignty will also matter. This will place democratic decision-making power in the hands of communities by allowing them to design and govern their own food systems.

Under these frameworks, it will be critical to empower women and other marginalized groups who continue to face barriers, such as lack of access to credit and education.

A food system of the future will be equitable, responsible, and culturally aware. It will also be one that leverages scientific and technological innovations.

There are a variety of technological developments that we can apply both now and in the future to address food supply chain challenges.

Vertical farming

This method of farming involves growing plants vertically in an enclosed, controlled environment. It can boost agricultural yields, overcome the limited land-space problem, and even reduce farming's impact on the environment by reducing food miles. 

Eden Green Technology develops environmentally responsible technologies using greenhouse and vertical farming methods for food production, all indoors. This approach may consume less land, energy, and water than traditional agriculture and other indoor systems.

Vertical farms also help protect local economies and food trade expenses by shielding them from global markets. Plus, they may promote food security by nourishing agricultural productivity.

Blockchain

Blockchain technology provides a secure and transparent way to track food supply chain transactions. Blockchain can also improve food traceability, helping to tackle pressing issues like food fraud, food safety recalls, and supply chain inefficiencies. 

Aptean is one company that's working to provide blockchain traceability solutions for the food sector.

Automation

Similarly, by using a blend of artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and predictive analytics, the food supply chain can automate operations, speed up delivery times, proactively manage inventory, and minimize food waste.

Automation is becoming more popular in the food supply chain, such as using robots or cobots (robots that work collaboratively with people) for arduous, repetitive, and precise tasks.

This model can help to enhance employee safety, reduce costs, and increase labor efficiency and effectiveness.

Software, data, and science

Science is also helping to address some of the environmental consequences of our food supply chain.

“Enteric” methane is a greenhouse gas created by burps from cattle. Several research teams and businesses are working on feed additives that keep cows from generating methane in their stomachs and thus reduce the amount of methane they produce. This could lower the emissions burden of cattle farming.

One promising scientific development is NOP, a DSM product that may reduce methane emissions from cows by up to 35 percent, according to tests, and appears to have no adverse health or environmental effects.

Using data can also be helpful for making improvements in regenerative agriculture. The U.S. Department of Agriculture launched COMET-Farm in 2015, a greenhouse gas accounting software for farms that can help reduce carbon emissions. 

This free software is accessible to farmers and enables them to model carbon reduction and savings. Metadata from the tool is also being used to analyze carbon content, soil health, nitrogen retention, and other factors that contribute to agricultural wellness.

Potential trade-offs

Technological solutions aren’t without their downsides. For example, adopting more automation in the food supply chain may reduce the strain on human workers but result in higher energy usage.

Since non-renewable energy sources remain dominant in the United States, such a switch could contribute to some of the very issues advocates are trying to solve.

But if combined with a push toward greater sustainability throughout all levels of our consumption — beyond food alone — as well as a framework that ensures global food equity, tech may help us address the problems that have left our current food system in disrepair.

How to Get

Involved

Food supply chain issues require widespread structural reform but our everyday actions can get the ball rolling.

You may be able to use your purchasing power to influence what items are available on the market. Vote every day with your fork, making choices that support a more equitable, just, and sustainable food system. 

For example, you can check labels and purchase products that have been grown using best practices, such as “sustainable” and “fair trade.” 

Or, you can take direct action by joining the conversation. You can write a letter to your mayor, city councilperson, or state representative in support of food system reforms, letting them know that you believe food should not be a partisan issue.

Volunteering your time, knowledge, talents, or your dollars to projects that promote change is another good way to contribute.

Here are some organizations and businesses to consider supporting:

  • Wholesome Wave: As a U.S. nonprofit organization that helps low income communities enjoy greater access to fresh produce, Wholesome Wave partners with local communities to help them establish programs that work for their food and nutrition needs. One example is their Produce Prescription initiative, which enables healthcare professionals to prescribe free produce to low income patients with “diet-related diseases.”
  • FrontLine Farming: Dr. Damien Thompson co-founded this food and farmers’ advocacy group in Denver, Colorado. Led by People of Color and women, the group advocates for food growing, education, sovereignty, and justice in communities marginalized by the food system. FrontLine runs several programs, including the BIPOC Apprenticeship Program, which offers paid agricultural training to Black people, Indigenous people, and People of Color interested in food sovereignty.
  • Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance: This nonprofit organization is incorporated with the United States and the Navajo Nation. Its mission is to promote best practices and legislative policies that support Indigenous food systems. Programs include the Indigenous Seed Keepers Network, which helps communities organize to protect seeds from patenting and other practices that don’t align with food sovereignty.
  • First Nations Development Institute: As an Indigenous-led organization that funds, trains, and supports Native communities in protecting and practicing their cultures, this group also co-produced the documentary “Gather” (available on Netflix), which brought awareness to food apartheid in Native communities.
  • Aptean: Aptean is a Georgia-based software development company offering blockchain solutions to agricultural problems. According to the brand, more than 20 percent of the top global food companies have pledged to use blockchain technology by 2025, including large corporations like Tyson and Kraft.
  • Eden Green Technology: This Texas-based farming solutions company promises that their greenhouse and vertical farming technology can prevent food waste while using 98 percent less water and 99 percent less land to grow the same amount of food as other production methods — almost anywhere in the world.

Plus, you can inspire change in your own sphere of influence simply by talking about these issues at your dinner table.

If you have children in your life, help them to understand the complexities of the global food system. As they grow older, they, too, can be agents of change.

Rose Thorne contributed reporting to this feature.

Sources

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