Ag groups’ claims on causes of food shortages don’t hold water

On May 1, 2020, the California Farm Bureau Federation joined the California Farm Water Coalition, the Family Farm Alliance, and many other agricultural groups in sending a letter to Governor Gavin Newsom requesting that the Governortake the necessary steps to help secure next year’s food supply” by directing “your agencies and departments to find ways to maximize water supplies for farmers this year, until such time that we can normalize the food supply chain from farmer to grocery store shelf.”

But the premise of the Farm Bureau / Farm Water Coalition / Family Farm Alliance letter falls apart on close examination. The disruptions to the food supply chain from the COVID-19 pandemic are not based on a lack of production in the fields.  Rather, the disruptions are based on major shifts in consumption patterns because of the pandemic and on resulting problems with distribution.

The California Farm Bureau Federation conducted an online survey of members between April 7 and April 21.  As reported in the Central Valley Business Times, “nearly 57 percent of respondents said they had lost customers or sales during the pandemic, with most citing stay-at-home orders that had closed customers’ businesses.”

In the past few months, California has seen fresh produce plowed under, and milk being dumped.  There has been a shortage of the same commodities in grocery stores, and record demand at food banks.

Lettuce California USDA
Lettuce field   Photo courtesy of USDA NRCS

Fresh produce

In Coalinga, Harris Farms reported plowing under 6 million heads of iceberg lettuce on over 254 acres because there was no market, due to loss of food service sales. An April 11, 2020 article by Manuela Tobias and Robert Rodriguez stated:

For many farmers, it’s more cost-effective to let crops rot in the fields. They can’t afford to harvest it if there is no market for it, and food banks can’t cover the full cost of labor.

“The food system was built to make sure every single Outback Steakhouse and Chili’s has access to every single food item,” said Cannon Michael, president of Bowles Farming Company in Los Banos. “To have a system like that means that if the demand collapses, there’s a ton of waste that happens.”

Plowing produce crops under when prices are too low has been a long standing issue in California. As reported by Manuela Tobias in October 2019, Gregory Baker et. al. at Santa Clara University found that

…farmers tend to overproduce to fulfill their contracts with buyers. They plant about a third more than they need in case of weather, pests, plant disease, labor availability, field stability and over-or under-sized crops. If after delivering, the price is too low, they leave the rest to rot.

Milk and dairy products

Tobias and Rodriguez’ April 11, 2020 article also stated,

Dairy farmers in the San Joaquin Valley, the center of the state’s dairy industry, were forced to dump thousands of gallons of raw milk in recent weeks because restaurants, schools and exports have all but dried up.

“We’re producing 10% more than we can process,” said Anja Raudabaugh, CEO of Western United Dairies. “That’s a lot of milk.”

One of the main reasons cited by dairies for not providing the surplus milk to food banks, was that “federal regulations require that milk be processed first, and that costs money dairy farmers don’t have right now.”

Food insecurity from economic disruption

The problems with getting food to stores are thus due to disruptions in the supply chain due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The disconnect between food production and food availability to California’s families will likely get worse as economic impacts of the pandemic ripple through the economy.

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