Open for Criticism

Several times these past few weeks, I have seen a quote attributed to John F. Kennedy that is used to correlate to our current global pandemic. “When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters. One represents danger, and the other represents opportunity,” Kennedy said. The quote is from a speech the president presented to the United Negro College in 1959, a fitting time and place to discuss a crisis.

My network of friends and colleagues are outwardly trying to stay hopeful as we march through this current health and financial disaster. Most are experiencing a significant income drop, and some have even lost their jobs. My corporate peers have largely survived, thus far intact, mostly due to their employment with large organizations in the food and agricultural sector. Boomers and Gen X’ers, who lead and manage the lion’s share of employees at Fortune 500 companies, have experienced many lessons these past weeks; one, in particular, is the remote workplace. Although the impact of this is purely speculative at this point, I feel confident that we are about to experience a sudden and significant reduction in the demand for office space throughout the country. There will be exceptions in some business groups within any company, but more and more employees will be tucked away in their out-of-office workplace. The sudden deluge of video conferencing tools is a vital element of this revolution.

Across the U.S., we are eight to ten weeks into the coronavirus crisis, and no one has the crystal ball to project when normalcy will return. With certainty, there are some things we can predict. Specific to agriculture, in all likelihood, the wave of criticism that will flood across our industry, with a focus on the livestock sector, will be unyielding. Organizations absorbed by disparaging the current food production system will have much to discuss with consumers in the coming months and years. Those voices, some working to eliminate meat consumption, will soon be busy creating documentaries, writing books, and lighting up social media. Their backdrop will include the thousands, if not millions of animals euthanized because of the ‘broken food system’ stigma that has been cast upon agriculture during the pandemic.

My personal experience suggests that leaders in agriculture already recognize the vulnerability and means of exploitation that will be thrust upon farmers and ranchers in the coming weeks. The harsh reality is that the naysayers will not be entirely incorrect in their judgment. We have made decisions to build in efficiencies and cost-effectiveness, that in retrospect, make the industry more susceptible to raw material shortages or plant closings. In the coming weeks, as condemnation heightens, responding with terms similar to ‘we must defend agriculture’ will not be helpful. Getting ahead of the curve and initiating work on those aspects of food production that will be most criticized might be a useful tactic. Still, the overall strategy needs to include engagement with those organizations that are most vocal, yet display signs of reasonability in their messages and discussion.

As a nation and as food producers, we are in crisis. The food supply chain has shown itself to be particularly susceptible. It is a crucial link and must be dealt with transparently in re-establishing downstream confidence, all the way to the consumer. A safe supply of food can take multiple tracks to market. As a consumer myself, in a large metropolitan area, I can attest to the chatter that is taking place concerning finding a new, more direct food source for the kitchen, especially the freezer. I can also confess to going ‘locally grown’ myself now and again.

The window to engage the passionate voices around food production is likely wide-open in the near-term. In the crucial moments following a crisis of this nature, we must seek the opportunity that exists. Organizations will be most apt to find partnerships and show a willingness to participate in discussions about a path forward. Farmers, ranchers, food companies, and meat processors must be open to criticism and display a sincere desire to evolve.

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