Pandemic lessons for improving the food supply

Pandemic lessons for improving the food supply
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Industrialized and globalized food production has many benefits. These include fruits and vegetables year-round, low prices for consumers, and larger, even global, markets for producers. 

But there are also costs — to the environment, workers, small farmers and to a region or individual nation’s food security.

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed both the strengths and limitations of what the food system has become in the past 70 or so years. The costs to workers and the environment have led to a reexamination of the benefits of small farms and locally produced fruits, vegetables and meat. 

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Farmers working relatively small plots producing for local markets are the norm in low and middle-income countries. This is not always the idyllic picture conjured up when one imagines life on a small farm. Far too often, it’s an arduous life of poverty and indebtedness. 

But not always.

There are many successful initiatives to help farmers in low and middle-income countries like Nepal, India, Kenya and Guatemala raise their productivity and incomes and amass capital to both expand output and start small businesses. While each community success story is different, they share a few key elements:

Cooperatives

There are many successful cooperatives in the U.S. and other countries. They are especially helpful — even necessary — in countries in which agricultural production is highly concentrated among a handful of dominant companies. The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on this reality in the United States’ meat processing industry. 

When meat processing workers got sick and meat production went down, the costs fell on workers and livestock farmers. The profits, in the form of higher meat prices to consumers, went to the handful of meat processing companies.

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Cooperatives could help address this. While the final products would likely be a bit more expensive, the meat from smaller plants is usually safer and more flavorful. The plants themselves are usually safer for workers and have a less environmental impact on surrounding communities. 

Successful cooperatives in Kenya and other low and middle-income countries have a lot to teach us, including how to generate capital through savings and credit groups. These groups pool savings of smallholder farmers and loan to members at very low rates. Savings and credit groups are often the first step to larger, more comprehensive cooperative relationships. Farmer-controlled savings and credit groups could play an important role in the revival of small farms in the U.S. 

Organic methods

By eliminating pesticides and other chemicals, organic and sustainable techniques are healthier. They are also safer for farmers, who do not have to store and handle dangerous chemicals. Finally, organic production is not harmful to the environment and can help restore soil quality.

Replacing chemicals with organic pesticides and fertilizers can significantly reduce costs. Because of consumer willingness to pay a premium for “cleaner” food with a smaller environmental footprint, farmers can charge more. This means higher returns. 

There is still much to learn about organic techniques from farmers in low and middle-income countries. Some of these are actually ancient techniques, rediscovered and refined for current conditions. These include animal-derived pesticides, closed-loop aquaculture, simple low-water irrigation systems, and more. 

Heritage varieties

Industrial farming has resulted in consistent and attractive produce and meat. But to achieve this, and at the scale necessary for profitability, the variety has been greatly reduced. Uniform produce and meat look nice. The tradeoff is less flavor and conditions often unhealthy to workers and the environment. 

Consumers are slowly rediscovering heritage or heirloom varieties. Produced on small farms, this meat and produce is often available at high-end restaurants, farmer’s markets and specialty supermarkets. 

Of course, this is just how organics — now sold at Wal-Mart and Costco — got started. 

Peru, Guatemala and many other low and middle-income countries have experience with indigenous produce. A resurgence of traditional varieties of fruits and vegetables brings increased self-sufficiency, food security and counters the ill effects of the “modern” diet. This expertise — as well as the heritage varieties themselves--can and should be put to use on American small farms. 

Smallholder farmers in low and middle-income countries have a lot to share with like farmers in the U.S. and other developed countries. When it comes to food, this is the kind of globalization we could use a lot more of to help rebuild our economy in a way that works for everyone. 

Dr. Kate Schecter is the president and CEO of World Neighbors, an Oklahoma City, OK-based international community development organization that helps rural communities in Africa, Asia and Latin America address the root causes of poverty.