It will be history’s job to ultimately determine where the COVID-19 health crisis ranks when it comes to pandemics of the past. Let us pray that this is nothing more than a footnote and not something like the Spanish Flu following World War I a little over a century ago. But while in the moment of living through all this the thing that has fascinated me is how the reality we have built as a people, as a society, as a nation and yes the entire ‘modern’ world is so incredibly fragile.
We all look at what is happening through different perspectives and lenses of life. When you look beyond just the individual and global health implications what has been exposed is how the rest of the world has become so reliant on China to run our daily lives. It is one thing to run out of surgical face masks but its downright frightening to know that in a recent Fox News interview with Florida Senator Marco Rubio he stated that between 80 to 90% of all antibiotics in the United States come from China.
The Chinese government and their mouthpieces know this very well and they already let us know this inconvenient truth in not so nice a way. In an article in one of China’s state-run media publications it claimed that they could impose export pharmaceutical controls that would plunge America into “the mighty sea of coronavirus.”
This should be more than troubling for us as a people and more importantly as a nation. It also puts into perspective of how very important core industrial supply chains are to ensuring the well-being and ultimately the sovereignty of a nation. Readily available medical supplies are critical for the long-term health of a country — both literally and figuratively speaking. But it is just as important to insure the internal health of two other key supply chains — those being fuel and food.
Luckily as a nation we are currently in a strong position when it comes to the domestic production capabilities of both the energy and agricultural sectors of the economy. Thanks to new energy technologies and an abundance of domestic resources like clean natural gas the United States is pretty much self-sufficient. For the first time in decades we don’t have to worry about what Saudi Arabia or Russia does when it comes to manipulating the world supply of oil. Hopefully, we learned our lessons from countless wars in the Middle East and the painful long gas lines of the 1970’s.
When it comes to food and fiber production within the United States the American farmer can still take pride in the fact that collectively they produce enough not only to feed their nation but also many outside it as well. What is concerning is that the overall health of production agriculture in the U.S. is not nearly as vibrant and healthy as it should be. If you wanted to describe it in medical terms you would say that the production agriculture sector of the U.S. is in a “weakened state.”
Ironically, if you wanted to point fingers for why this is you could say China has dibs for a fair share of the funk that has hung over American agriculture for the past several months or even years. For decades China was looked upon as U.S. agriculture’s savior having over a billion mouths to feed our excess bounty to. That halo is certainly no longer there. First you had the devastating outbreak of African swine fever in China that wiped out over a third of the pork herd — in turn having a crushing blow on U.S. corn and soybean imports. Next came Trump’s trade war with China and the tit-for-tat tariffs that hung over commodity markets like a black cloud. Then just when you think there’s a ray of sunshine with the announcement in January of the first phase of a trade deal — BAM — U.S. farmers are economically affected by a global pandemic from where? The answer? You guessed it - China!
This “event” will likely trigger massive changes in how we live and how we work. We will reassess priorities as individuals, as a society and as nation. Hopefully, all in good and positive ways. But as our politicians like to say, “Don’t let a good crisis go to waste.” We should use this moment to look at our weaknesses in our vital industries — and the food and fiber industry should rightfully be at the top of that list.
We need to pay better attention to what food is coming into this country from outside our borders whether it be fruits, fish or filets of beef. Should there be limits on how much we rely on outside sources of key food staples? Should we rethink some of the red tape and regulation that have driven fruit producers in California, fishermen in New England and Kansas cattlemen to lose out to their Mexican, Chinese and South American counterparts? We need to make sure our inputs like crop protection products and fertilizer are not at risk of being held hostage to countries like China and India. Unfortunately, if you look closely we may see similar numbers that might be as scary as the numbers we see in pharmaceutical imports. At the boots on the ground level we need even accelerated initiatives in pushing agricultural technologies to the next level and make it more adoptable and affordable. All these things should be on the table for discussion today — not tomorrow. For someday tomorrow could be too late.
At the end of the day when this crisis has passed I hope it does one thing. It is my hope it totally redefines what the word sustainability means for agriculture here in the United States. It has so much more of a deeper meaning now than it did before. Because if your reliance on certain essential foods, crop protection products or vital fertilizers comes overwhelming from the outside world — your nation’s food system is not by definition sustainable.
So if you were worried about the shortage or toilet paper or if Apple’s next iPhone will be delayed it could have been a lot worse. Instead we need to be worrying about keeping the most important person in your life happy and well — that’s the American farmer!