The pandemic has exposed the weaknesses of a food system built around high-volume production and domestic supply chains, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said on Wednesday. As a remedy, he said, the USDA would help independent processors start or expand their operations and encourage local marketing.
During a speech at Georgetown University, Vilsack said the USDA would invest nearly $3 billion in grants, loan guarantees and an array of programs to transform America’s food system. Farmers would make more money and consumers would have more food choices with additional regional processing capacity, he said, and greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced with fewer miles between farm and dinner table.
“Building the system back better, stronger and more resilient requires an unprecedented approach, and that is what we are investing in at significant levels today,” Vilsack said. “And while billions of dollars are being invested in this transformation of the food system, it will take consistent and substantial funding in the future to ensure that investments today are built to last into the future. As Congress begins to work on the next farm bill, it will need to focus its attention on continuing that effort.
While $3 billion is a remarkable sum, Americans spent $1.7 trillion on food in 2020, down $100 billion from 2019 as the pandemic kept people out of restaurants. .
More than half of the funding announced by Vilsack would go to expanding the independent processing capacity of small and medium-sized enterprises, with $875 million for meat and poultry processors and $800 million for the infrastructure of the supply chain for fruits, vegetables and nuts, and for certification of safe practices. at the farm. The USDA would also invest $400 million in regional food business centers and $300 million to help farmers transition to organic production.
“Much of this ‘framework’ is just a repackaging of previously announced initiatives that will receive one-time funding provided for Covid-19 relief,” said Arkansas Sen. John Boozman, the principal Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee. “Today’s global food supply system faces serious challenges that require serious responses. Today’s proposal misses the mark.
House Agriculture chairman David Scott said he supported Vilsack’s proposal. “I commend Secretary Tom Vilsack and the USDA for their hard work in implementing these resources in a way that will make the supply chain more resilient, give producers access to markets and fairer prices, and will ensure that all Americans have better access to nutritious and affordable food.”
Some of the largest meatpacking plants in the United States slowed or temporarily halted production in April and May 2020 due to coronavirus outbreaks among their workers, driving up retail meat prices and creating one-off shortages . Milk and butter supplies have also been disrupted by stay-at-home orders. Fruit and vegetable growers lost customers as the restaurant industry shut down.
The disruption to the meat supply has stoked calls for a network of smaller, more localized processing plants that could maintain production when the disease closes one or two large factories. Smithfield Foods operates the largest hog slaughterhouse in the world, with a capacity of 32,000 hogs per day, in Tar Heel, North Carolina, for example.
Skeptics say that small factories are not as profitable as large ones and that it would take a lot of small factories to make up for the volume of a large factory. The 15 largest hog factories slaughter 59% of the country’s hogs.
A trade group, the North American Meat Institute, said last week that the industry was already resilient. “USDA’s own data tells us that in 2020 and 2021, throughout the pandemic, regardless of processing downturns, there was record beef production.”
The Organic Trade Association said the $300 million announced by Vilsack would kick-start growth in the $63 billion sector “by making the organic transition process more accessible and impactful, especially for beginning farmers and ranchers.” and socially disadvantaged, who face unique challenges in accessing resources and support programs.
A description by the USDA of its framework for transforming the food system is available here.