Lessons learned for 2021

By Matt Reese

I’m fairly certain that no single year in recent world history has had more of a universally global impact than 2020. Nationwide and around the world, if you were alive and breathing during the previous 12 months, 2020 inevitably had a significant impact on you. No matter your profession, age, socio-economic status, regardless of where you live or who you are, we are all likely heading into 2021 with an altered perspective from a year ago. Have you changed for the better?

I think one positive change in the last year was that the role of agriculture (from farms through the supply chain) gained some valuable ground in the estimation our society in general. Many of those far removed from the daily challenges of agriculture have clearly been taking our amazing food system for granted. Those folks got a sobering wake-up call in 2020. 

Ohio Farm Bureau president Frank Burkett, III alluded to this in his comments reflecting on 2020 while heading into the organization’s virtual annual meeting in December.

“COVID-19 sure dealt our farmers its share of challenges, but with those challenges also came opportunities — opportunities to show agriculture our value, opportunities to help neighbors in need, and opportunities to continue to do what we love, to work the land, to care for our animals and to keep farming while the rest of the world seemed to stop in its tracks,” Burkett said. “After 2020, those not involved in agriculture learned just how essential farms are.” 

Food, agriculture and farms were a big deal in the big scheme of 2020. In some cases, those looking to stock up on their meat supply at home had no choice but to go local, causing an explosion in demand for local freezer beef and processors around Ohio. There was a huge shift back to cooking at home, which revitalized closer connections between families and their food. 

With hiccups in the incredibly efficient supply chain for food products including milk, eggs and various cuts and types of meat, many consumers got a bit of insight into massive effort that goes into producing their food starting with the farm and getting it to the store. They also got a reminder that food is not easy (it never has been), even though our incredibly impressive food supply chain usually makes it appear that way.

Think about, for example, the state of the nation’s pork industry back in late April. Consumers were panicking about a lack of pork in retail stores while pork producers were seeing live hog supplies backing up on farms with nowhere to go due to a lack of space in processing facilities. Cheryl Day, executive vice president of the Ohio Pork Council talked to me for a story about the severity of the situation back on April 29, 2020. 

“COVID-19 has been causing havoc for everyone. For pig farmers, though, it has been like a wreaking ball. We are working on this ‘just in time’ inventory. Pig farmers plan over a year in advance to deliver just the right amount of pigs to the space available at processing plants nationwide. When we have a one-week disruption it really backs up the flow of pigs and they have to adjust really quickly,” Day said. “It also means less pounds being processed. All pork producers understand that the processing plants have to slow down their lines to protect their workers at the plant level, but that means less loads being delivered each week to the processing plant.”

At the same time, union officials were pushing for increased safety, protection and resources for workers getting sick on the frontlines at the processing plants.

“To protect America’s food supply, America’s meatpacking workers must be protected. The reality is that these workers are putting their lives on the line every day to keep our country fed during this deadly outbreak, and at least 20 meatpacking workers have tragically died from coronavirus while more than 5,000 workers have been hospitalized or are showing symptoms. For the sake of all our families, we must prioritize the safety and security of these workers,” said Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, back in April. “Simply put, we cannot have a secure food supply without the safety of these workers.”

Since then, COVID-19’s impact on meat and poultry workers has largely been reversed though the distribution of tens of millions of pieces of personal protective equipment, health and temperature screening efforts, radically modified facilities, testing, preemptively paid leave for high-risk and quarantined employees, enhanced air sanitation and ventilation, and other efforts. Due to these efforts, COVID-19 infection rates among meat and poultry workers is now more than 8 times lower than the general population.

As the first vaccinations are being distributed, the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) Advisory Committee on Immunization Priority (ACIP) announced that frontline meat and poultry workers should be among the first to be vaccinated, just behind health care workers and those in long-term care facilities.

“Priority access to vaccines is a critical step for the long-term safety of the selfless frontline meat and poultry workers who have kept America’s refrigerators full and our farm economy working,” said Julie Anna Potts, Meat Institute president and CEO. “Meat Institute members stand ready to support vaccination for our diverse workforce, which will also deliver wide-ranging health benefits in rural and high-risk communities.”

 Prioritizing vaccination for frontline meat and poultry workers is supported by leaders across industry, unions, civil rights organizations and has been recognized as a key consideration in multiple other countries’ vaccine distribution planning.

There is no question that some societal lessons were learned about food, farms and agriculture amid the many challenges of 2020. The question now is: will we heed those lessons learned in 2021 and beyond?

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