As 2020 continues to find us navigating treacherous and uncharted waters in an attempt to protect ourselves and our neighbors from a worldwide pandemic, we would be wise to heed the lessons we’re learning along the way.
While I’m sure history will look back on a multitude of lessons this time has taught us, I would like to focus on one in particular that I think we all should already have learned – the importance of cultivating a resilient food supply chain.
For many of us, access to food is something we take for granted. We have the most abundant, affordable and safe food supplies in the world. But in the days leading up to and the days following the announcement that we were dealing with a worldwide pandemic and people faced the reality they may need to limit their interaction with the outside world, they showed us what was really important – food (and, strangely, toilet paper).
While the run to stock up on essentials left our store shelves temporarily empty of the variety and abundance we are used to seeing, there was always enough food in the system to meet the demand.
It just wasn’t always in the correct packaging, quantities, or step in the supply chain to pivot to meet the shift in consumer behavior. This is particularly remarkable given the production of food cannot be increased with the flip of a switch.
The beef that was brought to market often started that journey more than two years prior. After all, it takes time for cattle to grow and be ready for harvest. Milk comes from cows that have reached an age of maturity to produce it. We cannot grow more mature cattle overnight and we cannot tell a chicken to lay more eggs. In agriculture, we operate on the timelines Mother Nature gives us and she cares little for financial markets or fluctuating demand from consumers. While the complexity of a “just in time” food supply chain took some time to adjust to new forms of demand, the food system was able to respond quickly and keep the products flowing to markets to the capacity our current system allowed with only temporary interruption.
But for a moment, imagine a world where that food supply came exclusively from a different state or a different country. Imagine a world where local food systems were non-existent, and consumers were completely reliant on production outside of our control to meet our most basic nutritional needs. Now imagine whether we would have witnessed the same resiliency in the face of unprecedented crisis.
The key to success for any agricultural enterprise is access to water. Agriculture is the largest water user in the state, not because farmers and ranchers are thirsty, but because consumers are: every gallon of water that’s used to grow a crop is ultimately consumed by the one who eats (or wears) the end product that crop is used to make. Without security and certainty in access to water, agricultural production cannot continue to meet the needs of a growing population – whether in Arizona or across the world.
COVID-19 gave us a special, unexpected insight into the complexity and resiliency of our food system. It’s a lesson we should take to heart. Once we recognize the food we eat is the product of collective decisions made years ago, based on what farmers and ranchers knew at that time about the resources available to them, we must also acknowledge the decisions we make today about how to manage those resources will impact that food supply years from now. As we consider new water policies that may have an impact on agriculture, I would encourage all of us to remember the challenges posed by even a temporary disruption in the food system.
A resilient, local agriculture industry is essential to food security in times of crisis. Let’s be sure our decisions are the right ones and that they don’t jeopardize that system. We may well regret it the next time we face adversity.
Philip Bashaw is the CEO and executive secretary of the Arizona Farm Bureau.