Never let a crisis go to waste

Two panelists say there are lessons to be learned from a shock to the food supply, now and in the future.

Despite a coronavirus pandemic that has wreaked havoc across all sectors of agriculture, there are lessons to be learned from a crisis like COVID-19, says A.G. Kawamura, a third-generation fruit and vegetable grower from Orange County, California.

Kawamura has experience with crises. As a former secretary of agriculture for the state of California, he was a panelist on a Farm Foundation Forum held by videoconference on Tuesday. How can you look at a global pandemic as a positive? This is the way of the 21st century, Kawamura said. This is our future.

“It’s actually giving us more time and more tools in the toolbox,” Kawamura said. “Thank God this pandemic showed up in 2020” and not in previous decades or generations. Today, he says, we have genomics to speed up the search for a COVID-19 vaccine; we have better logistics to move products into adjacent markets; we can harness technology to see in real-time where shortages are.

The advances we have in today’s food supply chain can address food gaps and food shortages globally, he said. “This century we have every ability to redesign our place in the world.” A crisis like this offers “a renaissance for agriculture” – as he called it – an “a-ha” moment that allows the world to “embrace how much potential we have in agriculture.”

Kawamura offered three challenges that his sector of agriculture faces:

  • Labor.
    His concern is if there’s an infection detected on-site, then the whole plant may get shut down; or, an entire crew could be asked to stay at home during harvest or times of other critical chores.
  • Crossing the border.
    Kawamura depends on exemptions for ag workers to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. “That’s as big a concern in the sector as anything,” he says.
  • Cash flow.
    What happens when your bank tells you that you need more collateral? he asks. Or, one of your suppliers or buyers defaults – and won’t deliver supplies. In his words, these issues are “farm stoppers.”

Vegetable producers – like dairy or strawberry growers – are dealing with perishable goods. “When you hit the stop button, what happens to the vine? The strawberries?” Unlike other farm operations, these growers are stuck with a production number every day.

A food distribution challenge offers an opportunity to connect with consumers, to educate them about the essential food system, according to Kawamura. “Our goal is to create abundance. No producer grows anything in order to have to throw it away.”

“Never let a crisis go to waste,” joked Luke Chandler, chief economist for Deere & Co. This crisis allows agriculture to build bridges and narrow the disconnect with consumers. This is an opportunity to cross that challenge – to educate especially millennials and connect with consumers, Chandler said.

Kawamura does see a potential dark cloud, despite some optimism for the future. He is concerned about the “crisis after the crisis” – when producers actually plant fewer crops in the next planting, because of the uncertainty in the markets and food supply chain. If they don’t plant the normal amount of food, he says, that could lead to food shortages in any commodity in the months and seasons to come.

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