Staff Editorial

Big Ag and red flags: Iowa's food supply during the coronavirus outbreak

We put too many of our eggs - and our meat chickens, hogs and cows - into too few baskets

This undated file photo shows Tyson Foods meats plant in Waterloo, Iowa. There could be less selection and higher prices
This undated file photo shows Tyson Foods meats plant in Waterloo, Iowa. There could be less selection and higher prices as plants struggle to stay open. Tyson Foods suspended operations at the plant, as of Monday, April 27, 2020. (Jeff Reinitz/The Courier via AP, File)

The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the fragility of America’s food supply chain.

Iowa and neighboring states have seen a slew of frightening COVID-19 outbreaks at meat processing facilities. Some meat products now are unavailable, and industry leaders say more shortages are expected.

A core problem in your food systems, one that exacerbates the others, is corporate consolidation in the agriculture industry. A small number of businesses have claimed control over large swaths of the sector, giving them enormous influence over the supply chain.

To augment an old farming cliche, we put too many of our eggs — and our meat chickens, hogs and cows — into too few baskets, or in this case, meat processing plants. When just one or two of those baskets fall apart, the consequences are dire.

The meat supply is at risk. More family farms are the answer

A more decentralized and diversified system might be better equipped to weather crises like the one we’re living through now.

The situation at American grocery stores clearly shows something is not working — certain meat products are in short supply, but farmers are euthanizing livestock because they can’t get them processed. While consumer prices have climbed, the prices paid to people who raise animals have dropped.

“The spike in the purchase of beef products at the grocery store has resulted in higher beef values for meatpackers, yet farmers and ranchers have seen a net decrease in the value of their cattle,” U.S. Rep. Steve King wrote last month in a letter to the Trump administration, requesting an investigation into possible illegal practices in the industry.

In another letter to the Trump administration, a bipartisan pair of senators — Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar and Utah Republican Mike Lee — called out “market manipulation” and “anticompetitive conduct” on meat pricing.

The infectious disease outbreaks exposed these problems, but did not create them. We knew we were susceptible to such a disaster long before this virus emerged.

Between 1991 and 2015, the share of U.S. farm production from farms with at least $1 million in sales grew from 31 percent to more than half, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

By some estimates, just four companies control 80 percent of U.S. beef processing. Those businesses — Tyson, Cargill, JBS and National Beef — are accused in a federal lawsuit brought last year of colluding to drive down cattle prices.

A 2018 report from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy summed up the hazards of this arrangement: “This concentration in buyers puts pressure on farmers to accept lower prices, while conforming to evermore burdensome requirements from the companies for what animals to raise and how to raise them.”

The responses from our state and federal leaders to the coronavirus food crisis so far have been lacking.

President Donald Trump last week signed an executive order requiring meat processing plants to remain open during the pandemic. That could temporarily sustain supplies, but it does nothing to protect workers. When they’re forced to work and then fall sick or even die, the shortages will persist.

The Iowa Department of Agriculture recently launched a “Pass the Pork” campaign for farmers to donate hogs to food pantries. It’s a good idea to help meet Iowans’ immediate needs, but it’s no substitute for the kinds of structural reform that would make our food system more resilient in the long term.

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Too often in Iowa politics, voters and officials confuse what’s good for Big Ag and what’s good for farmers. Now we are learning the hard way how weak our food chain is.

(319) 398-8262; editorial@thegazette.com

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