How will we heal Illinois' agri-food system?

Keeping the shelves stocked like this one at a grocery in Bloomington is becoming more difficult as COVID-19 outbreaks and shutdowns at some U.S. processing plants have begun disrupting the meat supply chain. “When one section of the supply chain has a slowdown or complete shutdown, it bottlenecks the rest of the system,” Illinois Farm Bureau President Richard Guebert, Jr. said. (Illinois Farm Bureau file photo)

Given the scale of this sector, Illinois must find the fortitude to overcome engrained barriers and self-interests to accelerate its future.

How will we heal Illinois' agri-food system?

Richard Guebert Jr. is vice-chair of the Illinois Agri-Food Alliance and president of the Illinois Farm Bureau.

In the midst of a global health crisis, the agri-food sector is pressing forward determined to do what it does best — feed the world. After all, empty grocery store shelves don’t simply restock themselves.

COVID-19, however, is rapidly exposing our food system’s susceptibilities and disconnects. Could this pandemic catalyze a rethinking and transformation of the current centralized model? With an outsized stake in the outcome, Illinois would be wise to consider.

How will we heal Illinois' agri-food system?

Bob Easter is chair of the Illinois Agri-Food Alliance and president emeritus of the University of Illinois.

Under normal circumstances, the modern food system operates with efficiency via a “just enough, just in time” lean inventory model supported by a global trade system. By design, it provides a diverse array of abundant, low-cost food and agricultural-derived products sourced around the world catered to consumer demands.

How will we heal Illinois' agri-food system?

Theresa E. Mintle is vice-chair of the Illinois Agri-Food Alliance and interim vice chancellor for public and government affairs at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Illinois plays an influential role in this globally integrated system. Our fertile farmland and geographic location have transformed the state into a critical production, logistics and transshipment point of food, feed, fuel and fiber. We rank in the top five nationally in the production of soy, corn and hogs, and are a leader in agricultural and processed food exports. Chicago and its environs are home to leading businesses driving global commodity trading, food processing and manufacturing, food distribution and retail, and supporting services.

Accolades aside, COVID-19 has quickly illustrated our reliance on a centralized supply chain. When one segment breaks, disastrous feedbacks occur. Illinois’ top commodities are seeing a rapid tailspin in market prices. Our dairy producers are being forced to dump thousands of gallons of milk a day. For beef and pork, where meat processing is heavily consolidated, the shuttering of facilities amid virus outbreaks present farmers throughout the state with limited options. Meanwhile, as unemployment and hunger rises, food banks cite scarcities and inadequate capacity.

Apart from the pandemic, other systemic challenges have long infected Illinois’ agri-food sector. The state imports 96% of its fresh fruit and vegetables. Sector-facing businesses continually face an uphill battle in securing a robust workforce. Degraded and underinvested infrastructure is crippling capacity to store and transport products. Rural communities lack broadband in an era dependent on digital connectivity.

When COVID-19 subsides, the challenges and inequities it both caused and revealed will not simply disappear. In the era of COVID-19, Illinois must avoid “business-as-usual,” form unconventional partnerships, and accelerate efforts to develop a more resilient, sustainable, equitable food system.

The world is quickly evolving to a new norm, and the complexity of problems it faces will continue to emerge with ever-increasing intensity. Sustaining the future of Illinois’ vibrant agri-food economy is contingent upon adapting our food system to meet modern needs.

We have already seen some notable examples. The Chicago Park District teamed up with the Illinois Soybean Association and Indigenous Energy to produce hand sanitizer. The Integrated Bioprocessing Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois is doing the same for Chicago-area hospitals. Illinois Farm Bureau and its county affiliates are securing donations to support food pantries across the state. A coalition of Chicago-based corporations supported by The Chicago Community Trust is working to identify food distribution challenges and meet them with local solutions. Regional food system champions, including the Chicago Food Policy Action Council, Fresh Taste and the Illinois Stewardship Alliance, are working together to mitigate local market disruptions.

These types of novel collaborations need to be sustained and enhanced going forward. In the near-term, efforts must continue to concentrate on ensuring health, food supply and continuity across the supply chain. In the long-term, we need cross-sector engagement to reimagine our food system with focus on reducing supply chain complexities, inefficiencies and inequalities inherent in its current design.

No one individual or entity is equipped with the resources to navigate these turbulent times. Given the scale of its agri-food sector, Illinois must find the fortitude to overcome engrained barriers and self-interests to accelerate its future. Healing the fissures amplified by COVID-19 will require radical collaboration. Only in meaningful partnership will Illinois foster the capacity to create the resilient food system needed in today’s disruptive landscape.

Editor’s note: This article by Illinois Agri-Food Alliance leadership, which includes Illinois Farm Bureau President Richard Guebert Jr., originally appeared in Crain’s Chicago Business.

Bob Easter chairs the Illinois Agri-Food Alliance and serves as University of Illinois president emeritus. IFB President Rich Guebert Jr. serves as Illinois Agri-Food Alliance vice-chair, along with U of I Chicago Interim Vice Chancellor for Public and Government Affairs Theresa E. Mintle.