As meat plants shut down, COVID-19 reveals the extreme concentration of our food supply

An op-ed I wrote for The Globe and Mail with Ian Mosby, one of the co-authors of our upcoming book Uncertain Harvest: the Future of Food on a Warming Planet.

“The food supply chain is breaking,” Tyson Foods Chairman John H. Tyson wrote in an open letter published in the New York Times earlier this week.

And he’s not wrong.

Over the past month, anyone following the news might have noticed images of seemingly endless food bank lineups juxtaposed against footage of milk being dumped down the drain by the truckload and literal mountains of potatoes, onions and other crops left outside to rot.

Tyson, though, was referring specifically to the crisis in the American meat packing industry caused by the closure of more than a dozen plants due to devastating COVID-19 outbreaks among workers. Just three of those plant closures – including the Tyson Foods plant in Waterloo, Iowa – have already reduced U.S. pork production by 15 per cent.

In the Waterloo plant alone, nearly half of the plant’s 2,700 workers have already tested positive for COVID-19. Despite health risks to workers, President Donald Trump has ordered meat-processing plants to stay open.

Given Canada’s even deeper level of corporate concentration – with only three meat processing plants accounting for 95 per cent of all beef production in the country – our supply chain has been even more disrupted by the pandemic than its U.S. counterpart. Two plants, accounting for 70 per cent of Canada’s beef output, have already seen serious COVID-19 outbreaks. Last week, the massive Cargill Foods plant in High River, Alta., was forced to shut down completely after more than 500 local cases of coronavirus and one death were linked to the facility.

The thousands of the mostly racialized and vulnerable meat packing workers falling ill in the past few weeks is even more awful given it could have been avoided by a more robust regulation and inspection system. Before the first cases in High River were confirmed, workers from the plant wrote a letter stating, “We the workers and our families are worried and scared for the possibility that we might bring the virus with us at home.”

Yet, in the case of the High River facility, the last Occupational Health and Safety assessment of the plant before its closure was conducted via cellphone video. The operation was then given the go-ahead to stay open despite crowded working conditions that make physical distancing impossible.

As we found while researching our book, this combination of increasing corporate concentration, industry deregulation and growing dependence on the low-waged labour force of racialized and often exploited workers has significantly weakened our food supply chain. And it’s not just the meat industry where COVID-19 has brought into focus the vulnerabilities at the heart of our food system.

Just four multi-billion dollar corporations (Cargill, JBS, Maple Leaf and Olymel) control nearly all of Canada’s meat production; 80 per cent of the retail grocery market is owned by only five companies (Loblaws, Sobeys/Safeway, Costco, Metro and Walmart), and just a handful of companies (Bayer, ChemChina, Corteva and BASF) control more than 60 per cent of global seed and pesticide sales.

Throughout the food chain, extreme corporate concentration has seen the slice of the economic pie grow dramatically in these companies’ favour, while only the largest farm operations have been able to stay profitable. Even then, these farms have gone into millions of dollars of debt while continually being pressed to overlook their lands’ soil and environmental health, cut labour costs and become dependent on temporary foreign workers and undocumented labourers.

Make no mistake: most farmers and nearly all workers are on the losing end of this, whether it’s the cattle ranchers who suddenly have no market for their beef following the closure of only two plants, the grocery store workers who put their lives at risk every day for low wages, or the more than three-dozen temporary foreign workers at greenhouse operation Greenhill Produce in Kent Bridge, Ont., who just tested positive for COVID-19. Their lives and livelihoods are the weak links in a food chain that has been forged by government policy to disproportionately benefit the rich and powerful.

The food supply chain really is breaking. But it’s breaking because our food system has been transformed to disproportionately benefit massive multination corporations like Tyson, Cargill and JBS at the expense of farmers, workers and – as we’re now seeing in the form of empty grocery store shelves and steadily rising food prices – consumers.

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