iFoodDS Advocates for Food Supply Chain in Response to President Biden’s Executive Order
By Diane Wetherington
Founder and Executive Chairman
August 17, 2021
On February 24, 2021, President Joe Biden issued an executive order to review supply chains that impact the economic prosperity and national security of the United States, including food supply chains. The order directs the Secretary of Agriculture to report on the state of supply chains that produce agricultural commodities and food products.
iFoodDS is a strong proponent of a government effort to strengthen the resiliency of our country’s food supply chain. We also are advocates for the companies that grow, harvest, manufacture, transport and sell our food. As such, we recently shared our position on the executive order, summarized below, with the USDA. To read the complete comments submitted by iFoodDS, visit Regulations.gov.
Why We Need to Take Action
The U.S. food industry and supply chain are critical to our country’s continued self-sufficiency and national security. But our food supply chain is complex and complicating our ability to manage this complex food supply chain are the ongoing changes to the fundamentals of our system. Over the past nearly 100 years, the number of farms and total acreage have been declining annually. At the same time, the U.S. population continues to increase. Until now, productivity increases have helped offset the loss in farmland. However, if farmland continues to decline, we will need other methods of increasing production to maintain the level of volume required to feed our growing population and protect the U.S. food supply chain.
Investments and policies such as the ones described below could help address our current food supply chain dilemma.
- Investment in New Technology
Future productivity advances will require ongoing investment in new technologies such as, but not limited to, genome editing, artificial intelligence, machine learning, sensors, data mining, and robotics. Many of these technologies are in development or already exist but scaling them to become affordable solutions to supply chain issues will be extremely difficult without proper funding. In the agriculture industry, investing in and scaling new technologies often requires more time for adoption than other industries, resulting in a lower initial rate of return.
The agriculture industry would benefit if we could expand the USDA’s Business Programs to:
- Include support for private loans and funding to economically scale technologies
- Incentivize farm adoption
- Support sustainability measures and future productivity gains
- Supply Chain Infrastructure Enhancements
There is now a great deal of national interest in modernizing our country’s physical infrastructures, but this doesn’t account for the data infrastructure required to facilitate commerce and ease the flow of goods in the food supply chain. The industry needs to move away from paper-based data management to become more efficient but identifying which technologies should be adopted and how it will be funded is in question.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) developed the New Era of Smarter Food Safety to address foodborne illness outbreaks, traceability gaps, and other weaknesses in our food system supply chain, but much of the initiatives outlined by the FDA require the adoption of new technologies such as Blockchain and DNA fingerprinting. Advances in technology could help improve the supply chain’s inefficiencies and support further productivity improvements. To encourage support and adoption of new technology by growers and others in the supply chain, financial incentives may be needed, and solutions must demonstrate a financial return on investment
- Food Safety Culture
The food supply chain’s most critical role is to provide safe food for consumers to eat. Today we have one of the safest food supply chains in the world, but to keep it that way we need to continue to invest in food safety scientific research to address knowledge gaps. Where we lack a scientifically proven approach, we need to consider how our international partners in Canada, Mexico, Europe, and other parts of the world deal with similar food safety concerns.
Our reliance on audits to demonstrate the success of a company’s food safety practices needs to be re-examined. Their investment and commitment to monitoring food safety data real-time and taking preventative action even when not required should be rewarded. Likewise, we need to recognize the disincentive for companies to put in the time, effort and cost, and put some consequences in place to hold them more accountable. It is crucial to develop a food safety culture focused on continuous improvement and to recognize companies that demonstrate a commitment to make food safety a priority. Setting food safety standards that are consistent across the supply chain is critical to building a strong food safety culture that everyone can work towards and adhere to.
- Farm Labor
The farming community relies heavily on immigration labor, but government hurdles continue to stall the hiring of employees that are essential to our industry. Our current administration should continue to work with Congress to put forth and support meaningful legislative reforms that support this critical labor need. As an example, the recently House-passed Farm Workforce Modernization Act would establish a system for agricultural workers to earn temporary status with a path to become a permanent resident and would amend the existing H-2A temporary agricultural worker visa program, helping to alleviate labor shortages for the agricultural industry. The USDA Rural Development Programs can also help by encouraging the next generation to become farmers and replace the current aging farmworker population.
- Water Availability and Quality
Weather patterns and drought conditions in key production areas lead to limitations on water use. Without alternatives, such as desalination infrastructure investments, continued drought and housing growth in farming areas will lead to a further reduction in land available for farm use. The USDA Water and Environmental Programs could incorporate desalination initiatives particularly for locations where deep wells offer potential solutions to continued drought.
Produce growing operations and produce sold in grocery stores offer some of the lowest margins in the food industry. With continued pressure to maintain low prices, many farmers must rely on large sales volumes to cover costs. Some growers can diversify their operations and produce value-added products such as meal kits that sell at higher margins. While such value-add categories continue to grow, we need to find a way to make sure raw produce commodities will still be available to low-income populations. This may mean financial incentives from such organizations as the Agricultural Innovation Center Program for produce growers to continue to grow these items. Both types of products are essential for consumers of varying economic levels and nutritional needs.
- Feeding Everyone.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been one of the most devastating and impactful periods in recent history. Despite the tough times so many faced, we witnessed amazing generosity from farmers and so many others who donated food and their time to feed those in need. It was eye-opening to learn of the challenges so many food banks and other community organizations face that lead to food waste. Investments in food storage and transportation are critical to getting food where it needs to be in time for safe consumption. Food banks would benefit from the visibility into food supply availability that is made possible by technology.
Slow adoption rates to new technology, a lacking or limited food safety culture, farm labor issues, water quality and scarcity concerns, pricing demands, and food waste all have an impact on a farmer’s success, and ultimately on our food security. As the number of farms and acres of farmland continue to decrease, we can’t count on productivity advances alone to sufficiently supply enough food to feed our growing population. Advances in technology could help improve the supply chain’s inefficiencies and support further productivity improvements. Investments and policies such as the ones described above could help mitigate any adverse impacts from declining farmland, water and labor issues, and the hesitation to adopt new technology. We cannot rely on outsourcing food production to feed Americans for reasons of national security. The recent pandemic has shown us how susceptible we are to product shortages, including food. To ensure the continued health of our country, now is the time to invest in securing the nation’s food supply chain.