Food Security in the Time of COVID-19

16.8 million Americans applied for unemployment insurance over a three week period. Will the shock of the Covid-19 pandemic be a one time bump the world will get over and continue as it was, or will this be a permanent change, and if so, to what? Of course these millions of Americans are only those who had jobs with unemployment insurance. Many others are designated “independent contractors,” for example real estate agents and other salespeople. They will not be unemployed, but they won’t have jobs or money coming in, because unable to work or make deals because of the pandemic. Then there are the small business owners. I think it is fair to say that these events were a wake up call to everyone who needs to work to pay the bills. Your income may not be there tomorrow.

The American economy has run on debt for a long time now. Debt is money you get now and promise to pay back later. You are giving a vote of confidence to “later” whenever you incur debt. You don’t have that money now but you will have it later, you think. You are sure. Since it is in your own “later” you are giving a vote of confidence to, pretending such confidence is extreme folly, even if often done. The pandemic has torn the veil that hid the reality from the eyes of anyone who did so. Later may be unemployment. To have confidence that later will be better than now is delusional.

People who lose jobs will lose cars and houses. The effect of this large number of unemployed people will ripple through the economy. Its contraction is reflected in very low oil prices. It is not the numbers but the uncertainty that will have the greatest effect. It is my opinion that the pandemic will change people’s comfort with credit. Showing off a brand new car that put you in hock up to the eyeballs might not be as much fun as it used to be. And do we really need to trade up to that new house with four bathrooms in the suburbs where you have to drive to get anywhere? Will people go to sports events, concerts, blockbuster movies?

What would happen if Americans recognized the frivolity upon which they expended the wealth of a raped world? I am certain they would feel neither sorrow nor regret. They will look for someone else to blame. But they will also, I contend, become more frugal. The all too apparent uncertainty of the future surely must affect our confidence in it.

In any case, I think that a lot of the frivolous expenses of the previous economy, tourism for example, will not return because no one will be in the mood. It just won’t be fun to be stupid any more. That’s going to put a real dent in the economy, added to what we already have. Debt will collapse. The criminal absurd expenditure of the wars will be apparent. Could this possibly lead to food shortages?

It certainly could. The pandemic is certain to affect food storage, processing, and transportation. In addition, in the midst of starvation there will, paradoxically, be a demand shortage because people will not have money. Real hard poverty, long a reality for many, will become a reality for many more. I know it is hard to imagine that things will get to that point, but we have to imagine it.

What will people who are starving do? They might revolt, turn to crime, or do nothing. Slave revolts are rare. Docility is not thrown off in a day. However, the children of the domesticated and newly abandoned office workers will wander the streets and form gangs. A Fagin is an entrepreneur on the flip side of the law. The guy who actually has an idea for something to do will be able to quickly organize others. These ideas will be crimes, ways of getting food whatever it takes. Think South American drug cartels but in large and small town America, places that have been slowly dying for decades.

Outside the major municipalities and even among them, local governments are going broke. The police know there is not enough money to fund their pensions, and so they make it up with aggressive ticketing on nearby major highways. When the municipalities can’t even pay them, the police will become a gang of their own. But I predict they will be no match for the gangs whose members joined as children. The police have families and look forward to retirement. They need state funding. They are loath to risk danger.

Food in the United States is controlled by a single privately held family business called Cargill. There are other players, for example Smithfield, referenced above in the link, a wholly-owned subsidiary of WH Group of China. But Cargill is the biggest player, really, in all but name, a planetary monopoly in every aspect of food delivery. It’s storage, processing, slaughtering and transportation facilities are worldwide. It is sobering to realize how much of the world’s food is controlled by this private company. Cargill has shown itself unashamed in the past to profit from food shortages, that is, famine.

Cargill owns everything, but what is ownership? Isn’t it a fiction supported by the now collapsing state? There are the facilities, grain elevators, slaughterhouses, packaging plants, and soon, just outside, gangs looking for things to take. Does who owns what make much difference at that point?

If Cargill is going to make any money it will have to ship its products. It owns a fleet of freighters to do just that. What happens to the trucks as they roll out of their facilities into the no man’s land ruled by the gangs? Cargill will have to employ guards, but guards are working for money and are not going to stick their necks out. In any case Cargill’s need to employ guards will raise the cost of food still more. And can guards really stop the gangs. How long will guards guard a disabled truck in the middle of what they, but not the gangs, think of as nowhere?

If Covid doesn’t knock it out, will the Former USA deploy the military to protect Cargill’s trucks? All along the route? Helicopters buzzing around? Such protection would require a vast military deployment. Soldiers have to eat too. How many drivers will risk this crossfire?No, government thinking is already far too incoherent for that. Why does the United States insist on having a base in Iraq? They are despised. They can’t leave the enclosure. The Iraqi parliament has told them to leave. Rockets are coming in. It’s all for some kind of propaganda that nobody believes anyway and only a functionary could think anyone would believe. Is this the action of a sensible leadership? It is meant to convince the Saudis (who, by the way, have already dumped us) that we can still protect and threaten them and so force them to sell oil in only dollars. Those soldiers in Iraq are a token of a toothless threat. The so-called elite flub everything they try to do. Katrina? Covid 19? The government of the Former United States will not be able to field an operation to protect Cargill’s trucks within the snowballing chaos of the Former United States. A police state is a wet dream.

Perhaps it might be better, rather than allowing this fall into barbarism, to make a plan now, while there is still some social cohesion left. First of all Cargill is good at what they do. They have stuck to what really matters for more than a century and a half — food. There should be no attempt to paint Cargill as the bad guy. If there is going to be any food processing and distribution at all, Cargill will do it.

If the country is not to fall into chaos and barbarism, food must be provided at low cost and even free to food banks without injuring Cargill in the process. That means the government must purchase food and pay Cargill to distribute it at low cost. The territory of the Former United States still, at this moment, has the ability to deliver abundant cheap food.

The resources should be taken from the military budget. There is no need to worry about some other country, say China, invading us. Apparently, the entire so-called Elite has overlooked the Pacific Ocean. What kind of leadership can people who failed to notice the Pacific Ocean provide? This whole idea of a Chinese invasion is absurd and always has been. Ditto Russia. What would they hope to gain by that enormous expense? Of course the real purpose of the armed forces was to supply resources for cockamamie CIA covert operations and wealth to the military industrial complex. We will also have to do without those.

A government guarantee of food security is absolutely necessary if the country is not to fall into complete chaos, but it will only provide temporary respite from ecological collapse. Much more would be required to mitigate that. It would be a monumental task, but one that, in my opinion, Americans would embrace if given the opportunity. But that would require someone in charge who has a plan. Trump? Biden anyone? Food security, the first step even if never followed up, will be better than a war of all against all, which would, in the end, be nuclear.

Michael Doliner studied with Hannah Arendt at the University of Chicago and has taught at Valparaiso University and Ithaca College. He can be reached at: