The Road to a Secure Food Supply

If you’ve been keeping up with headlines today you know about the cyberattack on the world’s largest meat and poultry processor, JBS, which resulted in the closing of 6 processing plants as of yesterday. JBS is one of the big four meat packers who control 80% of this country’s meat supply. Already this attack has spawned talk of rising meat prices on the retail level.

How big is JBS? According to their website they have the capacity to process more than 200,000 cattle, 500,000 hogs, 45 million chickens and 80,000 small stock (lambs, sheep, goats and veal calves) per week. That’s sizeable, to say the least. And as we know, size and scale is the one necessary ingredient attracting an attack—be it cyber or otherwise. The object is always to do the most harm in a single attack.

For decades now the food and farming sectors have bragged on efficiency and economies of scale to the point where it has become almost a singular goal (perhaps even at the cost of food safety). While size, scale, and efficiencies have been essential to maintaining the American cheap food policy, it has brought a litany of vulnerabilities from transportation hiccups (think March/April 2020) to recalls of thousands of tons of tainted food to the cyberattacks we’re now seeing. While efficiency and affordable food may not be a bad objective in and of itself, it cannot be the end all be all. As Peter Drucker said, “Efficiency is doing the thing right. Effectiveness is doing the right thing.” Too often, effectiveness is neglected in the race for efficiency.

At Pasture to Fork, we’re not even a blip on hacker radar.  We’re smaller than a gnat.  Being insignificant is a security feature in these days of cyberattacks and the Dark Web.  While large-scale meat growers and their contract companies are forever concerned about the next bird flu or viral cattle disease threatening the food supply, we look at our mobile chicken shelters, small 100% grass-fed cattle herd, and miniature processing capacity and know we have little need for concern. Not only are we small enough to be unaffected, but our production model promotes health and vitality, not fear and vulnerability.

Be it far from me to say we’re the right size or that anyone bigger is inherently vulnerable. But we do know that centralized, sophisticated mega-complexity is more vulnerable to Covid, ransomware and other shocks to the system than nimble decentralized outfits whose eyes and hands ratio to product output is higher. Size matters.

Our food system is in a place where we need to think about not only the effect our food choices have on pollinators and wildlife, water contamination, or environmental toxicity, but on access as well. Resiliency is more than just ecology; it’s also about minimizing vulnerability. One definition of resilience is “The positive ability of a system or company to adapt itself to the consequences of a catastrophic failure…”. It does not mean catastrophe cannot or will not happen, only that the system has sufficient elasticity to adapt to it. To me, eighty percent of all red meat in America in the hands of only four multi-national corporations does not speak of resilience.

Every food dollar circulated in local communities, or transferred from corporate multi-national sources to smaller venues, is a food dollar invested in a more secure system. The notion—as so often alluded to by Corporate Food—that big is secure and small is not is completely false. Being invisible has its advantages. The more invisible food brands we have, the less vulnerable society is.  Rather than streamlining centralization through globalization, we need to create a diversity of local and regional food providers.

It’s time to realize the fragility of today’s food system—especially meat, to go back to a saner locally controlled food system that’s effective while being optimally nutritious and as efficient as possible.  More humble.  More rural.  More people friendly.  More natural.  In Joel Salatin’s words, “Let’s leave the industrial complex in droves and rebuild the butcher, baker, and candlestick maker at village scale.” And that’s The View from the Country.