Policy: Decentralizing Food Processing
COVID-19 has exposed many flaws in our society that were already there, but this pandemic could also give us the motivation we need to make some desperately needed progress. One of those areas is our food chain. Minnesota saw the closure of three major meat packing plants due to COVID-19 infections. That caused ripple effects, resulting in 10,000 hogs being euthanized per day in our state alone over the month of May.
There had been calls to decentralize our food processing for decades before Coronavirus, though, with ‘susceptibility to natural disasters’ being one of the highlighted reasons. With that prediction coming true, we need to use this as an opportunity to solve the problem of over-centralization of our food processing.
I’ve focused on meat processing so far, but this is a model that should be looked at for all of our food production. Of all raw farm products produced in Minnesota, only 0.3% are sold directly from farmers to their end consumer. The food chain must be looked at differently for each individual product and there are well-researched formulas focusing on the economics, carbon footprint, and energy demand of different processing models and what products each model is best applied to.
By increasing the number of processing plants while decreasing the size of each individual plant, we ensure that these centers are more local, a more intentional part of our communities, and more easily accessible to our farmers. The main group that centralization helps is the big ag companies who save money through scale of production. This is another example of how corporate consolidation is cutting family farmers out of the business.
With the centers closer to the farms, it helps farmers have more options in what to plant. A crop that might have been ideal for their land, but was cost prohibitive because of transportation fees, is now an option. That benefits the short-term profits of the farmer, as well as their long-term investments and handling of their own land, not to mention the environmental impact of agriculture as a whole.
We talk a lot about children being disconnected from how their food gets from farm to table. Having closer processing centers means not only can schools have gardens, but students can do field trips to follow the food they grew all the way through the supply chain while still staying within a short distance from home.
Decentralizing our supply chain of agricultural commodities was always a good idea, but COVID-19 has shown us that it is also a necessary infrastructure move to make sooner rather than later. With the additional benefits to our economy, our farmers, our environment, and our students, this is something I will be fighting hard for.