Op Ed: Investments in Local Food Vital to Fending off Food Shortages

After serving twenty years as Marine Corps Intelligence Officer and five years as the Commissioner of Agriculture, it’s easy to identify trends that have the potential to affect the security of the United States. One trend not being discussed enough is the current levels of stress on our food system. Despite our effort to instill resiliency through local agriculture, our leaders have been slow to act. At the WVDA, our worry has always been there may be a time our citizens face higher food prices and potential shortages that could threaten nutrition security. Unfortunately, like most crises, we only respond when the danger is imminent rather than implementing preventive measures in advance. Coming out of a pandemic that shut down food manufacturers, our country now faces higher energy prices, supply chain issues and rising inflation. Combine this with the military conflict in Ukraine, we are now looking straight into a perfect storm.

Day one of the Biden administration entailed a poor energy policy that has not only reversed former trade victories by President Donald Trump but also tripled gas, diesel and fertilizer prices. With government spending spiraling out of control, our country has experienced record inflation which has shrunk wages and increased expenses. Now farmers and truckers are feeling the squeeze on their budgets, forcing many to quit their jobs and hindering the American production of goods.

As the world has shifted towards global markets, we are increasingly reliant upon other nations for commodities. Any disturbance can have an enormous effect on our way of life. For example, Ukraine is rich in farmland and produces an estimated 13% of the world’s food calories. As the conflict disrupts their ability to farm, areas reliant on their products will seek other countries to fill the gap. That will strain the world food supply, drive up demand and increase prices for U.S. products. The conflict only compounds the other problems our country faces.

Other agriculture leaders now recognize that higher energy prices, inflation, bad trade deals and conflict overseas leaves us open to a potential food crisis. Although we may not face famine in our country, many of our citizens could face food insecurity. Rural communities will be hit hardest by this crisis, as lack of access and income become a barrier to nutrition. Fortunately, the United States is the second largest producer of agriculture products, so we retain the ability to feed our citizens, but that depends on our ability to get energy prices and inflation under control. Pressure will increase with the cost of inputs forcing the American farmer to choose between shipping goods to areas of highest demand and profit or feeding our citizens.

Despite the inaction from our own state leaders, my team and I have worked to further develop our local food systems. We have rebranded and created new benefits for the West Virginia Grown program, and if funded, we would be able to further help our farmers market their products and expand operations. We have passed laws that deregulated bakery and non-potentially hazardous food items and eliminated burdensome local oversight at farmers’ markets. Laws such as the Fresh Food Act, which mandates government funded institutions source 5% of food commodities from local farmers, creates investment opportunities. We have also passed two West Virginia Farm Bills to modernize and update agricultural code. What we are missing is true, hard dollar commitments into those who grow our food.

The good news is it’s not too late to respond and mitigate this looming crisis. Our legislators can invest in agriculture, as well as provide relief to our citizens through COVID and surplus dollars. What we must avoid is spending our excess revenue on pet projects. Instead, we need to focus on building resiliency in our State’s economy. This includes providing relief to residents by reducing taxes to help cover rising costs and spur economic development. It also includes providing funding to build more self-sufficiency in our local food economy. If our leaders are slow to act, it’s my advice you prepare for your family’s future by growing your own food. You won’t regret it.

Kent A. Leonhardt
West Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture

The West Virginia Department of Agriculture protects plant, animal and human health through a variety of scientific, regulatory and consumer protection programs. The Commissioner of Agriculture is one of six statewide elected officials who sits on the Board of Public Works.