By Gary Truitt
National Agriculture Day is set for March 24, 2020. This is a day when we in agriculture celebrate ourselves because, let’s face it, most of the rest of society does not acknowledge or celebrate Ag Day. According to the official Ag Day website, “It’s a day to recognize and celebrate the abundance provided by agriculture.” One of the key tenets of Ag Day is to, “Appreciate the role agriculture plays in providing safe, abundant and affordable products.” While all of the official Ag Day events in Washington, DC have been canceled because of the coronavirus outbreak, the pandemic and American consumers’ reaction to it have provided a very real and powerful example for just how important agriculture is.
Friday, March 13, was a truly unlucky day for anyone going to the store looking to buy toilet paper or hand sanitizer. The day also capped a week of sudden and abrupt changes in the daily lives of many Americans. Schools were closed for weeks, sporting events were canceled, and travel was restricted. People were getting a variety of mixed messages about the virus. The medical and public health community was giving sound, sensible, and scientifically correct information and advice, while the media was sensationalizing and politicizing the situation. Social media ranged from satire, to conspiracy theories, to downright harmful home remedies. Not knowing what to do or what was coming next, many people panicked.
Psychologists reported that the irrational hoarding of certain items is a typical response in a panic-buying frenzy. Photos of empty shelves in stores flashing across social media fostered a feeding frenzy response by consumers. For most people, the sight of empty store shelves was a first time experience. Not only were the paper product shelves cleared out, but meat and milk were also in short supply.
This was a perfect illustration of what Ag Day has been saying. Those store shelves that are always full don’t happen by accident; they only happen with a strong food production and transportation system. For an alarming number of consumers, the link between agriculture and the food in their stores has been lost. This situation, however, is a chance to connect those dots.
The store shortages, this time, were not caused by a lack of supply but rather were a logistics issue. A sudden surge in demand caught retailers and suppliers off guard; but, before long, those shelves will be restocked which would not be the case if a food shortage actually occurred. The panic we saw over toilet tissue would be tenfold if there was a food shortage caused by natural disaster, terrorist attack, or animal disease.
Government and industry safeguards are in place to prevent the likelihood of such a thing happening, but support of those policies by consumers is needed. The same sound, science-based approach being taken to deal with COVID-19 needs to prevail in the regulation of the food industry — no one can be allowed to influence the safety net for our food and agriculture sector.
In this time of social anxiety and market disruption, let us focus on the facts and support each other. In the coming months, as the virus runs its course and fades from the public consciousness, let us not forget the lessons we have learned. Let us not slip back into complacency about our health, the health of our economy, and the food supply of our nation. Happy National Agriculture Day!