March 15, 2022

President’s Notes: A Resilient American Food System

By Dave Puglia, WG President and CEO

Back in July 2020, I wrote in this column about the increasing use of the term “resilience” in water policy circles. Looking back at that column, I wondered if I had been a little snarky and dismissive. After all, we all want and need a water infrastructure and governing system that is, among other things, resilient. Especially as we endure the changing climate impacts on our snowpack throughout the West.

Then again, if one were to embark on a mission to fundamentally change the water policies that have enabled California and other Western states to grow and prosper over their history, asserting that those very systems—water infrastructure and governance—no longer provide resiliency would be a smart way to create broad acceptance of the need for reforms.

Sure enough, calls to reform the state’s water rights and governance are bubbling to the surface.

In a similar vein, it is impossible to miss in progressive circles a growing drumbeat to build “resiliency” in the nation’s food system. This began to become more apparent with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the sudden shutdown of the foodservice sector.

With restaurants, resorts, K-12 schools and college campuses suddenly closed, the normal flow of food to those outlets was largely stranded, especially in the early days. This caused a shock to our sensibilities. Americans have long been accustomed to a highly reliable, abundant and affordable supply of an amazing variety of foods at grocery stores, restaurants, schools, etc.

My own experience during those first months of the pandemic shutdowns demonstrated a system that quickly adapted to the shock of the foodservice sector shutdown and realigned itself to the emerging demands of the pandemic-dominated marketplace. One reason is that we don’t have a monolithic “food system.” We rely on a huge network of diverse channels and people, guided by private sector actors, that are highly attuned to changing demands and capable of rapid adaptation. Perhaps not every grower and shipper would share that view but judging from the collective feedback and experiences of Western Growers members, our industry adapted quickly and well—and continues to as consumer demand evolves post-pandemic.

Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, an open-source journal featuring peer-reviewed research, posted a paper in September 2021 that left no real doubt about the authors’ prescription for food system resilience. With the headline, “Achieving Food System Resilience Requires Challenging Dominant Land Property Regimes,” the paper’s authors zeroed in on private property rights, stating:

“[P]owerful actors in the food system attempt to leverage legal and cultural norms of property to legitimize their control over the resources that drive agricultural production. Our formulation suggests that visions for food system ‘resilience’ must embrace the reform of property relations as much as it does diversified farming practices.”

To a committed advocate of private property, enforceable contracts and the virtues of the free market, those words land with a disturbing thud.

The voices seeking to alter private property rights and free market dynamics under the guise of food system resiliency do no favors for the many other serious people exploring notions of resilience for agriculture that are entirely appropriate and needed. For example, the effects of climate change are straining water storage, conveyance and governance systems throughout the American West. A new adaptive approach to water management is undeniably needed, and though we may find strong disagreement as to the how, having a shared understanding of the real risk to agriculture and ecosystems in the West can motivate all parties to work toward a new consensus that does in fact enhance resiliency in our domestic food production and ecosystem management.

Similarly, a focus on the economic resilience of America’s food producers is entirely appropriate. How resilient can our farmers be when increasingly faced with rising input costs for labor, water, electricity and fuels, crop protection materials and other factors? With retail and foodservice companies having sourcing options in several countries, securing economic resiliency for American farmers should be the overriding imperative we all share.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization describes resilience as “the ability to prevent disasters and crises as well as to anticipate, absorb, accommodate or recover from them in a timely, efficient and sustainable manner.” Certainly, we can all learn from the COVID crisis to better anticipate and plan for future crises impacting American food production and supply chains. We will not, however, consent to attempts to redefine the very things that provide food system resilience—private property ownership, private investment and risk capital, and the forces of a free market—as vulnerabilities that demand “food system reform.”