The efficiency curse

We built a ‘better’ food system. The cost: It couldn’t handle a pandemic.

The first teachable moment of the pandemic, for me, had to do with the supply chain. Early on, supermarkets had shortages, and not just of food; other everyday items were also hard to find. The first example everyone noticed was toilet paper. That mystified people, and the immediate response was to blame it on hoarding. But while there was a certain amount of hoarding, the shortage far exceeded that.

Eventually, it became clear that we have two distinct supply chains for toilet paper — as we do for food. One brings small packages of high-quality toilet paper to your local supermarket, while the other delivers huge single-ply rolls to offices, schools, prisons and other commercial customers. This system was highly specialized and efficient, but also very brittle. As one sector collapsed, the other came under extraordinary pressure. You might think a company could say, We’ll move all this toilet paper over from institutions to supermarkets. But they are completely different products, made by different equipment on different machines and sold in different sizes for different markets. The companies just couldn’t adjust.

Efficiency is a wonderful thing. It can result in benefits such as lower prices and better uses of resources. But a hyperspecialized system is more vulnerable to disruption; it is not resilient. This is also the case with our food supply.

In times of crisis, resilience counts for more than efficiency. On television, we saw farmers dumping out tens of thousands of gallons of milk, or burying giant crops of onions, potatoes or carrots. Those tended to be the producers that supplied the industrial, institutional food chain. Like toilet paper, some of the milk supply goes to institutions — in giant boxes trucked to schools for dispensing machines in cafeterias, for instance. It is sold very cheaply thanks to economies of scale. But suddenly, we needed to take all that milk, put it into smaller containers and reroute it to consumers in supermarkets. The system couldn’t do it.

When the coronavirus came, we discovered that the system was fragile, rigid and therefore vulnerable. Who knew, before the pandemic temporarily shut it down, that a single Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., produced 5 percent of all the pork eaten in America? That sort of concentration may offer consumers cheap meat, but it also means one closure can lead to food shortages in a wealthy country of 330 million people.

A critical lesson for farmers from this crisis is to diversify to whatever extent they can, even if that costs some efficiency. This applies to what farms grow and whom they sell to — and to the entire food chain. For a farmer, it’s more complicated to have 10 crops instead of one: She may need a different kind of machinery to pull carrots than to combine the wheat. There is a price to diversity, but it creates a cushion that can be very important in times of crisis.

I have seen this in my own community here in Northern California. Whether they are organic or industrial, diversified farms tend to be smaller and grow many crops. They’re still dependent on a certain class of customer, but this doesn’t box them in. Under normal circumstances, for instance, these growers tend to supply restaurants, which have driven the farm-to-table movement, boosting farmers who grow high-quality crops. Suddenly, during the pandemic, restaurants were closed or buying far less produce than usual, yet these farmers were able to pivot fairly quickly. Many of them moved to a community-supported agriculture (CSA) model, selling a mix of produce to consumers in boxes, the exact contents of which they could determine each week depending on what they were harvesting.

This has been true even for dairy farmers: Some who still have their own pasteurization operations have shifted from selling raw milk to wholesalers to selling the finished product to individuals who come to the farm to pick it up. Retail sales shot up as people started cooking and eating virtually all their meals at home: Milk sales increased by 8.1 percent last spring compared to the year before that; cheese sales increased by 24.6 percent over the year before during the same period, and butter sales increased by 45.3 percent.

Smaller farmers are doing relatively well. According to Civil Eats, farms with existing CSAs have seen “a massive increase” in memberships since the start of the pandemic, with some reporting a 50 percent bump in sales. One California farmer said, “It took a pandemic for people to support local sustainable agriculture again, and home cooking, and ‘know your farmer.’ ” Some restaurants helped set up CSAs for their vendors when they realized they wouldn’t need to purchase as much as they did during normal operations. Other farms have banded together during the crisis to form new multi-farm CSAs or producer co-ops. In Wisconsin, 18 farms banded together to set up a web-based ordering system for CSA customers to order specific products they wanted, rather than filling up a whole box; they’d discussed this before, but the pandemic pushed them to make it reality.

The principle that diversity enhances resilience applies beyond the pandemic. More-diverse farms do better in the aftermath of destructive climate events such as storms or droughts. Revealing studies done in Central America have compared how different kinds of farms respond to hurricanes, showing which ones can withstand the storms and recover faster. It turns out that “efficient” monocultures are vulnerable, but polycultures are resilient. This goes for both large and small farms.

Why don’t we pay as much attention to the benefits of resilience as to the benefits of efficiency? We tend to get good at what we can measure, and it’s easy to produce numbers that support efficiency, such as crop yields per acre. Resilience cannot be easily measured, though. Its benefits are most evident during the catastrophes that can’t be predicted and the trends that haven’t been foreseen.

One striking thing I’ve learned in years of covering the food system is that many farmers and companies lose track of who’s eating their products. A famous example is Monsanto: When the company introduced genetically modified crops in the 1990s, its marketing focus was on the farmers who bought seeds, rather than the customers who would ultimately be eating those crops. That’s one of the reasons GMOs encountered such a backlash from consumers, many of whom now look for the “GMO free” label: Their concerns and anxieties were overlooked for too long by a company that had apparently forgotten it was in the food business.

I have seen this phenomenon over and over again with industrial ranchers, feedlot operators and food processors: They’re all paying attention to the next person up the chain, and the chain is so long and opaque that they overlook its ultimate purpose. This blindness to the whole system can encourage carelessness, which can lead to outbreaks of food-borne illness such as those traced to large-scale meategg and lettuce production in recent years. Small players sometimes have outbreaks, too, but there is a strong incentive to be more scrupulous about safety and quality when you’re regularly reminded that you’re feeding human beings — people in your community with whom you’re more likely to have direct contact.

That sense of interconnectedness is, for me, one of the most powerful and hopeful lessons of the pandemic. People who had never given much thought to where their food comes from (not to mention their toilet paper) suddenly learned something about farms and farmers, concentration in the meat industry, and CSAs. Which is to say, they learned about our interconnectedness. One belief that the pandemic has helped to shatter is that we are separate atoms, able to protect ourselves with money and geography. When New York had its darkest moment last spring, people in other parts of the country briefly gloated that the outbreak could only happen in blue states, that red states and rural places were somehow protected. But every such wall has been breached by the virus. The pandemic has shown us that the world is much more connected than we thought.

“No Farms, No Food” and “Know Your Farmer,” the bumper stickers of the sustainable-food movement, now seem freshly relevant. But the values embodied in those words apply to much more than farms and food: They apply equally well to the essential and front-line workers many of us never noticed before but whose well-being can no longer be separated from our own. It turns out we’re all in this leaky boat together, so, like it or not, we’d better start building systems and supply chains resilient enough to withstand the shocks to come.