Nothing gets us focused on farms like empty shelves at the grocery store. Having farmed through three pandemics, I can all but predict how this will play out: panic-buying and stockpiling, fleeting interest in local agriculture and temporary acceptance of the true cost of food, followed by quick return to the convenience of pre-pandemic shopping. It will be as if this recent seismic shift never happened, and we’ll have lost a rare opportunity to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
To prove that prediction false, we might pause for a moment to do two things: 1) Appreciate in word and deed those we currently hold “essential” in name only, and 2) Recognize and prevent the failures that led us here.
We have a ‘just-in-time’ food system that is massive, centralized, and systematically destroys any redundancy in the name of efficiency. Yet so-called “cheap” food is not actually cheap, and efficiency is turning out to be very expensive. Systems designed for reckless, inhumane line speeds and precise animal weights are buckling under the pressure of this pandemic and taking farmers and workers with them. While this was true before the pandemic, the specter of food shortages exposed the shaky foundation of valuing food solely in calories and stock prices.
But what if our independent, sustainable systems were as integral as their industrial counterparts? What if we had more independent farmers serving robust regional markets and building healthy rural communities? What if we had food reserves and funding that reached independent producers instead of shareholders? These “redundancies” would be the difference between hunger and nourishment. Like an extra navigation system in an airplane, it almost seems like a waste of space—until your life depends on it.
Independent farmers outside the industrial commodity system need you now. And you need them—much more than you need the monopolies profiting off the sacrifices of farmers and workers. With customers valuing availability over routine, many farms whose practices we certify have seen business boom—but without lasting commitment they will not be here next time. If you are among those who recently discovered a farmer who could feed your family while conventional, heavily subsidized supply chains ground to a halt, I urge you to continue investing in their welcome redundancy when this is over. A dispersed, just and sustainable food system is redundant, yes, but it is also resilient—and as many are finding, essential.
Andrew Gunther is Executive Director of A Greener World, nonprofit farm certifier and home of leading sustainability labels including Certified Animal Welfare Approved by AGW, Certified Grassfed by AGW, Salmon Welfare Certified by AGW and Certified Non-GMO by AGW.