America’s Food Distribution Chain Is Essential

Posted: Apr 30, 2020 12:01 AM
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"It's fairly likely we're going to be eating more canned foods and have less fresh fruits and vegetables available."

An ominous warning decades ago out of the Soviet Union? Hardly. Those are the words of Andrew Novakovic, a professor of agricultural economics at Cornell's Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, commenting on the likely food shortages we are going to experience, right here in America.

The disruptions in the food supply chains can be attributed to two primary causes – outbreaks of Coronavirus at some meat-processing and other food-packaging plants have led to closures across the country, and meanwhile, the sweeping closures of restaurants by state and local governments have disrupted the demand for a wide variety of food items.

Over the past few days, fifteen percent of the pork processors have closed their doors. Smithfield Foods in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, JBS pork processors in Worthington, Minnesota, and Tyson Fresh Foods in Waterloo, Iowa have all shuttered because of infections among employees.

As a consequence, hog farmers are now making difficult decisions, as they must contemplate euthanizing their pigs or attempting to slow down the pigs’ growth. The Wall Street Journalwarns that “grocers are struggling to secure meat … as the coronavirus pandemic cuts into domestic production and raises fears of shortages.”

City and state officials across the country have, without much consideration for the ripple effects they are causing, closed down dining in at restaurants. They have quickly, and sometimes eagerly, assumed the role of central planners, unconcerned with the unintended long-term consequences of their decisions.

The problem with central planners, however, as Milton Friedman was fond of explaining, is that they cannot possibly understand the interconnectedness of all aspects of the economy. In his famous example of the pencil, he reminded us that no one person can make that simple instrument because it is the product of several seemingly unrelated industries conducting their own work (the limber company that cuts the trees for the pencil, and so forth).

America’s fish supply provides a powerful example of what happens when states unilaterally shutter dine-in services at restaurants. The fishing industry knows something the central planners seem not to have known: Americans have a strong preference for eating fish in restaurants, rather than cooking it. The fish industry relies on restaurants, and, as restaurants are quickly learning, Americans are much less interested in taking fish in a carryout box to eat at home. Some things, it seems, are better inside a restaurant, served hot at a table.

California fishermen are now scrambling to keep their businesses open. One commercial fisherman, Harrison Ibach, noted the widespread fear in his industry. “As we watch these markets literally disappear overnight, we're terrified. We’re scared to lose everything.”

In other food industries, we learn that restaurant and school closures are disrupting milk, cheese, and even leafy green vegetable productions. Berries and squash will soon be left to rot, forcing farmers to contemplate the heart-wrenching option of proactively destroying their crops. 

The disruptions to our food supply chains help shed light on a broader problem in our response to the deadly virus – namely, that our default position is now simply to shut everything down. No longer are we asking how, and if, we can perform jobs safely or maintain the semblance of normal life. Instead, we are, with ever broadening strokes, defining entire industries as “non-essential.”

Governments at all levels have unwittingly institutionalized an almost-insurmountable two-part test for businesses to remain open. First, is the business “essential”? And the governments’ definition of “essential” is shockingly and dangerously restrictive. Second, if the business is essential, can it be done safely (read: with zero transmission of germs)? These overly zealous central planners have shifted the burden of proof to the business-owners and industry leaders. Rather than the burden of proof belonging to the government to explain why a business (or an entire industry) must be shuttered, we are now in the perverse situation where businesses must prove to a state or local government’s satisfaction that the business can pass the two-part test.  

The echo of Marie Antoinette’s fabled one-liner, “Let them eat cake,” has morphed into today’s rendition: “Let them eat curbside carryout.” Except, as we’ve learned, the central planners’ unintended consequences to our food distribution chain may soon yield a new unsavory twist: “Let them eat canned beans.”

Americans may soon discover they have little appetite for the central planners’ business of dictating what is, and what is not, an essential business.

Jenny Beth Martin is honorary chairman of Tea Party Patriots Action.