The coronavirus pandemic has awakened the American public to the fact that we’ve become overly dependent on foreign countries for strategically important supplies. How many of us realized before this crisis that most of our antibiotics and ingredients used in pharmaceutical drugs come from China and other countries?
It’s not only a threat to public health, but also a threat to our national security. As we go to war with this virus that is killing thousands of Americans and grinding our economy to a halt, we can see clearly now the danger of relying on foreign countries that don’t have our best interests at heart.
This isn’t news to the American farmer. We’ve been raising the alarm for years regarding what we consider the most strategic supply: food. While today we’re focused on drugs and medical equipment, we shouldn’t wait for another crisis to realize we’re also overly dependent on imports for our food supply.
These imports may drive down some of the prices for consumers, but their real costs are too great to bear for our nation as a whole. Those true costs come when they force the American farmer out of business and further jeopardize our ability to feed citizens in a time of crisis.
A few cents saved at the grocery store can’t be worth the toll it will take in the long run.
In agribusiness, this is particularly true of countries in Central and South America, who are the biggest sources of agricultural imports to the United States.
In 2018, Mexico sold to the United States almost $12 billion worth of fresh fruit and vegetables alone.
That in and of itself is no outrage. International trade produces many benefits for consumers and Georgia farmers. The outrage comes when you consider that these countries share a growing season with that of Georgia for many of our most important crops. They produce food that isn’t bound by the same rules and regulations that are placed on American farmers.
When you combine that with the fact that our agricultural labor is paid several times more than what foreign farms pay workers, it makes competing with their prices almost impossible for Georgia farmers. Mexico has been known to purposely dump fruits and vegetables into the American market at prices they know we can’t compete with just to grow their market share and push American farmers out of business.
But when it comes to our food supply, we can’t just look at market forces. Like with medical and drug supplies, we must consider the national security implications if we become overly reliant on foreign sources.
Right now, farmers and others in agribusiness — not unlike those in many other industries — are facing an existential threat from the shutdowns caused by the coronavirus.
At my family’s farm in Hall County, we specialize in fruits and vegetables. One of our biggest produce buyers is a distributor that sells to schools and restaurants. That market disappeared overnight, with no idea when it’s coming back. Our family faces tough decisions on how and what we are going to do moving forward.
My story is not unique. Across the country, big, bulk buyers of food, such as restaurants, suddenly stopped placing orders. Farmers and distributors are now scrambling to move their model from food service to food retail. They are desperate to find buyers of crops that are already in the ground and don’t stop growing just because things have changed on our end.
Dairymen are tragically having to dump millions of gallons of milk and growers are having to mulch their fruits and vegetables. With an abundant supply of food produced here in the United States, why are we further stressing our American farmers by importing inferior products from other countries that can never meet our quality standards?
This crisis also calls for action from the American people. U.S. consumers would serve their nation well if they talked to their local grocery store managers about the urgent need to prioritize locally produced food. This creates and retains jobs in our communities, and it also helps to ensure that when the next crisis hits, America has the agricultural infrastructure we need to feed our country without relying on the benevolence of foreign trading partners.
We need your prayers, but we mostly need your purchasing power. I ask that you demand Georgia Grown when possible and American grown always.
Drew Echols is farm manager at Jaemor Farms in Alto.