COVID-19 should push Congress to fix our flawed food system

COVID-19 should push Congress to fix our flawed food system
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Before COVID-19 most of us took for granted that whatever we needed would be on grocery store shelves, whether we were looking for carefully budgeted staple items or ingredients for a special dinner.

But how we shop has been upended — and that goes beyond uncertainty about what we’ll be able to check off our shopping lists. The pandemic has exposed deep vulnerabilities and inequities in the U.S. food system and supply chains. 

We shouldn’t be worried about a potential meat shortage; we should be worried about leaders who put profits above workers’ lives, food safety, animal welfare and environmental protection.

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Frontline food workers face infection every day, in processing plants, warehouses and grocery stores, doing their jobs with limited protective gear. Newly out-of-work Americans confront obstacles to finding nutritious meals. Small farmers struggle as shuttered restaurants and shifting demand make it harder to get food from farm to fork. Staggering quantities of vegetables, eggs and milk are being dumped by producers now unable to access markets. Moreover, as slaughterhouses shut down, millions of pigs, chickens and cows will be cruelly and unnecessarily killed and discarded.

Congress promises that help is on the way. The $2 trillion COVID-19 aid package enacted in late March includes $14 billion to be doled out by the USDA, largely at Secretary Sonny PerdueGeorge (Sonny) Ervin PerdueTrump's pitch to Maine lobstermen falls flat The ethanol industry is essential — it deserves a boost from Congress US trade policy milks America's dairy farmers MORE’s discretion.

But Big Agribusiness is at Perdue’s door — barely maintaining the minimum COVID-required distance — looking to farm the stimulus funds for another public handout to prop up a deeply flawed system. This, as President TrumpDonald John TrumpDeWine tests negative for coronavirus a second time Several GOP lawmakers express concern over Trump executive orders Beirut aftermath poses test for US aid to frustrating ally MORE just pledged $16 billion in direct payments to farmers and ranchers with few stipulations on who gets it and how the money’s spent. 

That’s why more than 50 food, environmental, labor and animal-protection organizations are urging Congress to ensure that the COVID-19 stimulus funds don’t become another giveaway to Big Ag. Instead we’ve recommended a set of policies to transition toward a fair, sustainable and resilient food system.

The need for such changes has never been clearer.

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Industrialized agriculture, particularly meat and dairy production, exploits workers, animals and the environment. Industrial meat and dairy operations pollute our water and air, destroy irreplaceable ecosystems, push low-wage workers and farmed animals to their limits and crowd out small and mid-size farmers. They’re also adding to the greenhouse gas emissions disrupting our climate.

Workers in slaughter and processing plants already face high risks of injury and illness and difficult conditions. The cramped, unhygienic spaces of industrial animal agriculture have been linked to previous pandemics and zoonotic diseases, both in the United States and internationally. These factory farms are breeding grounds for future pandemics. 

COVID-19 has made things worse. Jobs in slaughterhouses and meat-processing plants have become even more dangerous as many workers are forced to work in close quarters, denied paid sick leave and are told to work even when they’re not feeling well. It’s killing people. 

The Environmental Protection Agency is suspending enforcement of environmental laws, allowing meat and dairy producers to use the COVID-19 crisis as an excuse to further endanger public health with unregulated air and water pollution.

Despite the coronavirus disruptions, slaughterhouses are still pushing to increase slaughter speeds and decrease oversight. In some plants workers will be expected to kill three chickens a second, raising already high injury rates and further imperiling the welfare of the nine billion chickens slaughtered in this country every year.

Even as the death toll of workers rises, this week the Trump administration announced it would order slaughterhouses to remain open. Instead of prioritizing employee safety as people are sent back to dangerous working conditions, the White House promised an executive order denying workers the right to sue meat companies for failing to adequately protect them from COVID-19. 

But a different path is possible­­­­­.

Workers’ health must come first. Every frontline food- and farmworker must be valued as an individual and a critical part of our food system’s future. This starts with stronger protections for those toiling in fields, slaughterhouses, processing plants and grocery stores. We should mandate personal protective equipment, the ability to maintain social distancing, clean water and soap for handwashing and paid sick leave.

COVID-19 stimulus funds should support independent and small and mid-size farmers growing fruits, vegetables, grains and other climate-compatible plant-based foods. Many of these farmers have lost access to key markets just when we need more, not fewer. Although the USDA will purchase $100 million each month of fruits and vegetables and distribute it to food banks and community organizations — a positive step to get food where it’s needed and reduce food waste — the agency is spending twice as much on meat and dairy. 

If we’re going to repair the food system, this aid can’t be wasted on factory farms. Congress also needs to halt all environmental rollbacks and efforts by agribusiness to remove slaughter line-speed limits. 

Federal lawmakers have an opportunity to turn stimulus funds into a down payment on a resilient food system that’s centered on health and community, not the profits of multinational corporations and giant agribusiness.

The pandemic shows that a safe, secure, sustainable and fair food system is about more than knowing that bread and fresh produce will be in the markets when we need them. It’s about being prepared for the next crisis — and protecting the workers, farmers and environment we need to keep food on all our tables.

Stephanie Feldstein is the population and sustainability director at the Center for Biological Diversity. Mia MacDonald is the executive director at Brighter Green.