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Opinion

Duvall: Lessons learned from COVID-19

Shortages at grocery stores and other food supply chain shockwaves caused by the pandemic gave many people a new understanding of the crucial role of America’s farmers and ranchers and the importance of their survival through the COVID-19 economic storm.
Shortages at grocery stores and other food supply chain shockwaves caused by the pandemic gave many people a new understanding of the crucial role of America’s farmers and ranchers and the importance of their survival through the COVID-19 economic storm.

It was such an honor for me to be appointed by President Donald Trump in April to represent agriculture on the industry group focused on economic revival following the COVID-19 pandemic. It was recognition of agriculture’s importance not only to our nation’s economy, but to our quality of life.

Since then, American Farm Bureau has provided input for consideration as the Trump administration works on economic revitalization. Several recommendations, such as pursuing trade agreements and removing unnecessary regulations, make sense in normal times; now they matter even more to our economy and food security.

It has taken our nation years to recover from big economic disruptions of the past, such as the Great Depression in 1929 and the Great Recession in 2008. Policy decisions made today will have similarly long-lasting repercussions.

It’s important for us to learn from those past disruptions, as well as this one, and avoid policies that would stifle innovation and agricultural production.

We’ve recommended that the administration’s approach to restarting the economy be grounded in the principle that food security is domestic security, and domestic and global food supply chains are necessary for agricultural production.

That means farmers and ranchers need access to credit. It means the U.S. Department of Agriculture must have the authority and adequate funding to step in and stabilize the farm economy in the event of further or future disruption.

We already have learned important lessons from the past few months. We believe USDA should be the primary federal agency coordinating and overseeing all agricultural initiatives, and all other federal agencies — Labor Department, Federal Emergency Management Agency, State Department and Homeland Security, for example — should cooperate with USDA to leverage resources where appropriate to support agricultural production.

We’ve also recommended that agriculture be a top priority for testing and distribution of personal protective equipment or PPEs for workers on farms and in meat plants and other food manufacturing facilities, as well as farmers and ranchers themselves.

And speaking of meat plants, we must ensure the integrity and transparency of livestock markets to ensure that there is no price manipulation and that producers receive honest prices for their livestock.

Many produce growers who were already under stress from seasonal imports in early spring saw that situation get even worse. We’ve recommended that USDA, the U.S. Trade Representative and the Commerce Department resume delayed field hearings into the challenges facing seasonal produce growers in Florida, Georgia and other parts of the country.

One of the best things our government can do to help kick-start the farm economy is commit to long-range policies. We’ve had enough uncertainty. It will take time to re-establish supply chains and markets.

Farmers and food manufacturers shouldn’t have to worry about the expiration of temporary regulatory suspensions. We need a clear, sustained focus on stimulating economic growth.

A positive outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic has been increased coordination between the federal and state governments, and we believe that’s a great way to move forward. Continued dialog with states and their governors can ensure we build on what works for each state, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.

Through this health crisis, we’ve seen the importance of prioritizing the safety of agricultural workers and maximizing the flexibility of the H-2A visa program to ensure that food can be harvested and processed.

Going forward, Congress must renew immigration reform efforts to provide legal status to current agricultural workers, who are part of our critical infrastructure because of their role in providing food security. They truly are essential.

We’ve been through a crisis the likes of which none of us has experienced before. We’re still going through it, actually. We all want to see the economy reopen soon, but we also want to see things reopen in a way that’s well thought out and keeps us on the path of lowering infections.

If we learn the lessons that COVID-19 has presented to us, then we just might come out of this stronger than before.

Zippy Duvall, a poultry, cattle and hay producer from Georgia, is the president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.

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