Newswise Live Expert Panel discussion of unique angles to the COVID-19 pandemic and the effects on all aspects of daily life around the world. 

Topic: With meat production under strain as pandemic drags on, what is the impact on food security, supply chains, public health, and the environment?


  • Stella Volpe PhD, RD, LDN, FACSM - Professor and Chair of the Department of Nutrition Sciences - Drexel University, will discuss the benefits of going meatless, food, nutrition, and fitness during the pandemic.
  • Benjamin Ruddell Ph.D., P.E - Associate Professor in the School of Informatics, Computing, and Cyber Systems -  Northern Arizona University, will discuss supply chains and vulnerabilities in the food industry during the pandemic. 
  • Matti Kummu - Associate professor, Water & Development Research Group - Aalto University, assessing the resilience of countries to cope with food shocks on a global scale.
  • Carmen Martino - Director, Occupational Training and Education Consortium (OTEC), Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, will discuss workplace health and safety including OSHA.

When:  May 7, 2020. 2pm EDT

Where: Newswise Live event space on Zoom -

Registration for media, as well as colleagues from participating Newswise member institutions

This live event will also be recorded and transcribed for use by media and communicators after it is concluded.


THOM: Welcome to this Newswise Live Expert Panel. We have today four panelists from different universities working with Newswise. With us today we have Stella Volpe, she’s the chair of the Nutrition Sciences and also processor at Drexel University. We’ve also got Doctor Benjamin Ruddell; he is assistant professor at School of Informatics Computing and Cyber Systems at Northern Arizona. We also have Matti Kummu from Aalto University. We also have Carmen Martino; he is the director of the Occupational Training and Education Consortium at Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations. I want to go ahead and get started without any delay on this topic with questions for Ben Ruddell there at Norther Arizona. Ben, you’ve done a lot of research and data science about supply chains and how they respond to different shocks and disruptions. What has your research told us about the flexibility and the resilience of supply chains in a crisis like this?

RUDDELL: I’m the director of the FEWSION Project, which has provided national maps of supply chains and those include supply chains for pharmaceuticals, food products, etc. What we found is by looking at the network structure, points of venerability and weakness and I can say that we’ve been pretty lucky so far in this crisis for the most part because we haven’t hit most of those points of weakness. We have hit at least one, which is food processing. Our food supply chain is concentrated, particularly at the food processing step. There is not that many factories that process your food for restaurants and grocery stores and if they get compromised, for example by health code or by infections in the food processing facilities, those bottlenecks really hurt and that’s what we’re seeing right now. Other areas are much more flexible and resilient and so they haven’t been affected as much.

THOM: You described the vulnerabilities in food production and especially meat as bottlenecks, presumably a certain amount of products needing to go through a limited number of processing plants, is that the issue? What other kind of vulnerabilities create those bottlenecks and how could you describe that for us?

RUDDELL: What I mean here by bottleneck is that it’s not very diverse. We only have a limited number of food processing facilities and losing even one or two takes a big bite out whatever product, like pork or beef. Because we’ve had those outbreaks in those facilities, it really hurts. On the flip side, for example, our farms are much more diverse. There are thousands, hundreds of thousands of different farm entities and so if you lose a few of them or if things go wrong in a few locations, we’re much more diversified and resilient in that step. We’re also much more diversified and resilient in our distribution, our warehousing, our trucking and also our retail supply chains. There is a lot of different providers, a lot of diversity and that allows us to be adaptive and flexible and to compensate. It’s really all about your adaptive options during a crisis and so if you have a lot of diversity in the system, a lot of different providers and options, you have more flexibility to shift and adapt and prevent a shock. 

THOM: Great, thank you Ben. If any of the media in attendance today have questions for Ben, please let us know. I’m getting one right now from a freelancer here, Sophie Kevany. Sophie, if you’d like to ask this question yourself, we’d love for you to do so. I’ll come back to professor Ruddell here shortly. I want to go next to Caren Martino at Rutgers. Professor Martino, working with studying the kinds of labors, the kinds of workers in these industries, what can you tell us about why they’re particularly venerable and who makes up those workers in terms of socioeconomic status, as well as things like being venerable to certain health disparities?

MARTINO: The population that does this work is primarily folks of color and a large portion of the workforce is undocumented. These are folks who have a lot of risk factors with regard to the virus, so it puts them in a difficult place right from the beginning. The other thing that’s very problematic with the workforce is the way the work is organized itself and workers essentially work on top of each other, literally side by side on assembly lines if you will and they do as many as 10,000 cuts a day, depending upon what it is we’re cutting up, whether its poultry or beef or whatever. It’s a job that is difficult. It wasn’t always a job that was low wage, historically speaking these jobs were at one point higher paying jobs, decent paying middle-class jobs, this would be back in the late 70’s going into the 80’s. The industry went non-union, it went aggressively after the workforce that was organized and the conditions that exist now in large part have a lot to do with the fact that the workers not represented in most situations. Again, the other part of it is, as a venerable workforce and high percentage of the workforce, depending upon the location, includes undocumented workers, who obviously at the moment, they’re essential, on other occasions they’re very expendable and deportable. It’s a workforce that’s not likely or not often in a position to stand up for itself.

THOM: The workers in these industries being really the key factor in the decision about how to reopen and whether it’s safe to reopen, what policies are in place to protect these workers and their families as well as the communities where they work and live? If they’re going in and out of these plants and they’re potentially spreading the virus, it’s not just the workers themselves but it’s everyone else they come in contact with.

MARTINO: To back up just for a second. Most of them, these are low wage jobs and the folks that work in these jobs go back to communities where it’s probable that it’s not just a single family home with a mom, dad and two kids, it’s aunts, it’s uncles, it’s relatives, it’s co-workers who live together in many situations. There are circumstances as such that there is going to be a higher probability that the virus, if they brought it home, could be spread. Now in terms of enforcement or who regulates the industry that would protect workers on the job, it’s OSHA. In this situation, this has happened before, OSHA has basically been benched if you will, they’re on the sidelines in this situation. There is no standard for COVID-19. There was some movement a few years back under the Obama Administration to try to install a standard for viruses of this sort that might get into the workplace but it was never completely -- the work was never completely finished and when the Trump Administration came it’s just kind of a dead letter at this point. There is nothing there to enforce other than what OSHA provides under its general duty clause, which does give them the authority to go in an enforce in situations where workers are being exposed to things that aren’t necessarily written into a standard that you would enforce. But again, the way that OSHA has handled this up to this point, all they’ve got are the CDC Guidelines that have been posted for everyone. To add to that, the employers are in a situation now where they’ve got the president of the United States leaning in on them to stay open, not that he necessarily has the legal authority that he says he has but when the president leans in on you, you tend to listen. The employers are in a place where, “Okay, we got to go work every day, everybody goes to work every day.” And there is no regulation to limit or to at least define what the workplace needs to look like in terms of safety as regards to exposing people to the virus and so here we are and we have these high concentrations of spaces where workers are being exposed and whole plants are being shut down at times.

THOM: Thank you for that. If any of the media in attendance have questions for professor Martino, please do chat them to us. I want to go next to Matti Kummu at Aalto University in Finland. Matti, we have a question in the chat that I think is going to be a good one for you. I want to invite Sophie to ask this. Sophie, I’m going to go ahead an enable your audio and you are live here with professor Martino so that you can ask your question.

SOPHIE: Can you hear me?

THOM: We can.

SOPHIE: Great, hi, hello everyone. My question was, broadly speaking about the direction of animal protein. I was just wondering, given the bottlenecks that were mentioned earlier, do you see or can you guess whether post the lockdown over the next 12 months, would you see a move towards and this is obviously based on massive headlines saying, “Plant based foods have went out. Milk has gone up by 300 percent.” Everybody is also buying cheap meat and bacon and a lot of sort of poultry and processed fish. Would you see a move toward intensive farming or ideally, more FTC, farmer to consumers and if it is farmer to consumer, would that mean a broadening out at the local slaughter houses, could that be possible from that angle?

THOM: Matti, do you have any thoughts about that?

KUMMU: Thanks Sophie and Thom. Sure, working a global scale, how close to the food people live. In the US the situation is pretty good because you are producing a lot of extra food for export as well. At least what I am seeing here in Europe, I’m from Finland, it’s for sure going more towards this farmer to consumer. Also, in France there has been signs that people are much more interested in local food. However, saying that, this is option in only very few countries, including France, US, that 80 percent of the global population live in countries where they are dependent on imported food, at least to some extent. Yes, in ideal situation of course but then I think the intensive farming, given the population is growing and we need more food, I think it’s an idealistic way of seeing it. Personally, I think it could be doable if we radically reduced the meat consumption and so we free the crop fields to direct human food. I think there are many ways, reducing the food waste for example would give much more opportunities to harvest locally. At the moment, if we continue business as usual, it’s no go.

THOM: You mentioned one of the challenges to a more local or regional sourcing of meat directly from farmers to consumers, a challenge being there that some countries on the whole are reliant on importing most of their food. Is that the kind of factor that makes these kinds of supply chains not resilient to major shocks and what other factors make food supplies not resilient to those shocks? 

KUMMU: Ben mentioned that the main venerability in the US has been in the processing but then in US again, it’s in a very favorable position because your food exporter is one of the largest in the world. The other countries who are dependent on the global markets. This is the first shock in the modern history so to speak, that hits to every part of the food supply chain and every country in the world. No country has been able to prepare for this kind of a shock. It’s not only that it’s shocking the processing for example, in Europe the shock goes directly to production because the seasonal workers, they cannot cross the borders. Some countries they are already planning to export, like Vietnam and Kazakhstan. There are some export hindering, it takes much more time because there is no labor force to load the ships. Also, consumers, unemployment, it might impact the ability to purchase food. This is really the first time in the history that there is a shock that hits every country, every part of the food supply chain. The resilience to this kind of shock, this is an interesting test from that perspective for sure.

THOM: And you’re predicting a potential boost for solar based foods and alternative proteins? This is a follow-up that Sophie chatted to me after her question.

KUMMU: I think there has been, over the last decade, really the self-sufficiency of many, many countries has dropped but already before this pandemic, there has been a recent realization that we need to increase the self-sufficiency and for sure, this kind of solar based food or the other local managed food systems, they will for sure -- radical farming and other very intensive, quite expensive still but the price is coming down, for sure I see a future that this pandemic is positively impacting the investments on these kinds of systems.

THOM: Thank you. I want to go next to Stella Volpe at Drexel. Stella, building off of the response there from Matti about decreased meat consumption potentially being a benefit to growing a better good supply for the world, what’s your perspective on lower meat consumption and its impact on the health of Americans, as well as people around the world?

VOLPE: Lower meat consumption can certainly lead to decrease chronic disease. It’s been well established that a higher plant based diet leads to lower cholesterol, lower risk of diabetes, lower body weight generally in people and so from a health standpoint this really helps people and from an environmental standpoint it helps people because even if we just had one meatless meal a day, we could decrease the carbon footprint equal to more than taking off 26 million cars off the road. If half the population did that in the United States alone, that would happen, it also decreases water usage by up to 200,000 gallons. From a health perspective it’s great because people typically will reduce weight without trying so hard if you will because plant-based foods are lower in energy and calories, as well as helping the carbon footprint.

THOM: What alternatives to a diet high in meat would you recommend, even just the recommendation of going one day with no meat consumption is a good one, are there other types of diets that as a rule include less meat? For example, the Mediterranean diet or something else like that? 

VOLPE: You hit right there, we’re both Italian Thom, so we know that Mediterranean diet has also been shown to be very helpful for people and that puts meat sort of at the bottom of their pyramid, where it’s more a side and not so much a main part of the meal. Including things like beans and humus and tofu, if people hate tofu, more beans in one’s diet can really help with both protein, lowers the cost of their meals and for right now in quarantine too, buying canned beans really is helpful for the shelf live that people don’t have to go shopping as often.

THOM: A big question that’s part of this related to whether food supplies will be distributed is about the fact that people social distancing and being on various lock downs and other stay at home advisories, we’re doing all the grocery shopping and cooking meals at home rather than eating at restaurants. The proportion of that has changed dramatically. How has that shift impacted people’s ability to make good nutrition choices and what suggestions do you have people to make better nutrition choices while shopping during the pandemic?

VOLPE: Early on I think a lot of people were eating a lot more comfort foods and I just read an article yesterday that the energy or the calorie intake of people had decreased during this pandemic because they are cooking more at home, they’re making better choices in general and therefore weight gain has actually been none at all or just a little bit. That article actually surprised me because i think people are choosing to eat more healthy. Some things that they can do that are very easy to do, one of the things I love to make is a vegetarian chili or if people do want some meat in there, to maybe put ground turkey or ground chicken and it could be just a small part so they don’t have to buy a lot of it, then they can portion that across in the freezer for themselves and their family over a week’s time. Although eggs are animal based, they are also an inexpensive source of good protein and people can make omelets and they can make egg sandwiches and add vegetables to them, so that they get vegetables with their meals. Another way that people can have healthier diets and not have to shop as often is buying frozen vegetables and fruits, so that they can store them, their shelf life will obviously be much longer and they still provide a great source of nutrients. 

THOM: You mentioned an article about this topic, if we could possibly share that link. I’m getting a chat from one of the reports in the meeting, they’d love to see that if it would be possible to find that for us? We can include that in the transcript for you, Sophie. Thank you, Stella. I want to go back Ben. Ben, we’re talking about people doing more of their shopping because they’re not eating at restaurants, being on social distancing we’re having to cook all of our meals at home or most of them anyway. How has this shift been part of the disruption in food supply chains? What’s the difference between things going from farms to wholesale for restaurants verses going to grocery stores for retail consumers?

RUDDELL: This has been mostly a positive story about the flexibility and resilience of the modern food supply chain, I think. What you’ve seen here is a shift in the United States from the supply chain at the customer end running mostly 50/50 through restaurants verses grocery stores. That shifted in the space of just a week or two to being over 95 percent running through grocery stores. Grocery stores and their suppliers had to double the volume of services and restaurants and their suppliers dropped to near zero. The amazing thing is that that has gone so well and it’s gone so well because of a combination of free enterprise and tens of thousands of different warehousing and distribution companies that do that. The fact that companies are able to flexibly shift from providing food to restaurants to running it through the grocery supply chain instead. It’s the store where when you have diversity of transporting and distribution systems and a lot of motivated, incentivized and flexible private enterprises doing that work, as we do in the United States. They were able to pivot rapidly and massively to make that work and they have made it work almost perfectly. There have been very few glitches in that transition, although I’m sure that we could find some pretty easily, some glitches if we wanted to. Mostly, it’s a story of resilience. 

THOM: Wonderful. Thanks for clearing that up. On that further topic about some of these pivots and shifts within the industries, another question from Sophie Kevany, she’s a freelancer. Sophie, I’ve made your audio live if you want to ask this question about intensive farming increasing?

SOPHIE: Actually, I have two questions. The first one was, could joblessness and a looming recession in fact increase peoples need for cheap animal proteins? Basically, do you feel that’s a risk that in fact even as consumer -- even as alternatives are filling the shelves and people are talking about them, is there a risk that people actually end up buying in the longer term, cheaper cuts of meat? That clearly comes from intensive farming. The other thing I was just interested in there was the shift because clearly in Europe, where I am, that pivot has not been so good because we’ve turned to the EU for what they call Storage Aid, particularly for things like milk and steak, not mince but steak and basically the more expensive cuts of meat and some of the dairy powders. Are you looking to Europe and seeing, “Oh my god, they didn’t make that pivot, where as we did?” That last question was for the last speaker, sorry and the first question was for Stella. 

VOLPE: I was so listening, yet I thought they were all going to Ben, so my apologies. Were you talking about -- the first part I believe you asked about cheaper cuts of meat and my guess is you were talking about that with health, right?

SOPHIE: Well, no actually, do you think that just by our behavior, given joblessness, recession, we could end up buying cheaper meat that would in fact boost factory farming?

VOLPE: Yes, I think that is a risk because obviously if people are losing their jobs and yet they still want to buy meat products, they’re going to go for the cheaper cuts, which again, my head was going toward the negative impacts on health but yes, the negative impacts on the environment as well. Absolutely, I would agree with that. 

SOPHIE: How much of a risk do you think that is, like over the next 12 months, is there any way of quantifying that?

VOLPE: Ben, I might have to go to you on that one because that’s a little bit more your area than mine, I think. Not to put you on the spot.

THOM: Ben, could you weigh in on this?

RUDDELL: I don’t have a number to pull from a recent publication unfortunately but I think that the thesis is basically on point. With the economic disruption, the loss of income, that’s going to cause people to need to eat less expensive food and what we know about food supply chains is that, the main benefits of the industrial and national and global scale food supply chain that we’ve built in the last 40 years, are that it provides less expensive food and food that is more resilient to local disruptions in the system. Those are two benefits we need desperately right now from the structure of the system as a whole. I expect that what you’re guessing at there is going to happen. I expect that there is going to be a decrease in demand in expensive good, an increase in demand for less expensive food and that is going to be predominately industrial food. At the same time, I predict that in coming years there is going to be a renewed emphasis in many rich, urban areas on knowing where their food comes from and how secure that supply chain is and a growing interest in food self sufficiency. I think that once we move out of this crisis, I would look for boosted interested in gardening and local food, local farming, especially in cities and urban areas.

THOM: Sophie, was there another part of that question that we didn’t get to with Ben yet?

SOPHIE: Yes, I just can’t remember what it was right now. At the end he was talking about -- yes, a shift to more intensive factory farming and then I can’t remember the last bit of what we were talking about. I have my main answer for now, I’ll think of it again. Thanks.

THOM: Okay, thank you, Sophie. If anybody else has questions for any of our panelists, please do chat to us and we’ll allow you to ask them or we can ask them on your behalf. I want to go to Carmen again for some more questions about the reopening of some of this industry and the labor force there. Professor Martino, if a lot of these plants reopen and then they become themselves the centers of new hot spots, are they just going to have to close all over again and what would the impact be on those workers and those businesses as well as the supply on our local store shelves?

MARTINO: It ventures out of my field when we start talking about the implications or how many could be sick or sick again and that public health area is not my field of expertise. What I would say is that there seems to be a movement underfoot in the US right now as we speak to want to reopen everything and I think that there are enough situations where there are some places around the country where they’re not necessarily shortages of meat but there seems to be places where you show up in some grocery stores and there is not as much as there was and a few places things have been emptied out. I think there is going to be some concern about it. Having said that, I’m very worried about what’s going to happen because so far it looks like the places that are reopening are doing sort of what the states are doing that might need to be rethinking that, which is to say, not very much, they don’t have systems in places, they’re not checking people at the door before they go in to see if they’re sick or not, they’re not testing enough people in the facilities based on my knowledge is of it thus far. There is not a system in place for keeping track of people, most states don’t have good tracking system, contact tracers to do this kind of work. I’m very worried that it’s going to happen again. What happens in the aftermath of that? My hope is that we get our act together and we do start doing what needs to be done to isolate the virus and to make sure that when people get it, they can be quarantined and the workforce can continue to work. It seems to me that unless they do the testing, unless they have the system in place to keep track of folks who might have the virus and this is all within the facilities, they also need to starting thinking in terms of how they spread the workforce out, maybe slow production down a little bit, do things like stagger shifts in ways that allow workers to go have lunch breaks without everybody being piled in on top of each other or not having everyone all come in at once to work. Things like that that can be done I think to slow things down a little but to make the workplace safer, to get track of the virus potentially if it’s in the workspace. I think it’s all possible but I don’t have any indication right now, it doesn’t seem to me that any of it’s being done in any concerted way, maybe in a few isolated places but not generally. 

THOM: Thank you, Carmen. I want to ask Matti, what do you think governments can do as well as industries within food production to better prepare for these kinds of global shocks that you researched, the pandemic as well as other disruptions? What can we do to prepare for that?

KUMMU: Ben already mentioned the kind of diversity in each part of the food supply chain is a key. He also mentioned a couple good examples from the US, how the diversity has been enabled to move from one stage to another very quickly. I think the diversity in both food production and in the import connections and the whole supply chain I think it’s one of the keys. Also, the food self sufficiency was already mentioned, that will be for sure increasing. The food reserves which were quite common during the cold war, those have been shut down, at least reduced significantly in most parts of the world because the global market has been able to supply, it’s quite expensive to keep food reserves. According to some speculation, those will probably be started again. Of course, this decreases in the terms of a couple of years, ability in the global markets. Also, not only self sufficiency and food production itself but also the agriculture inputs such as fertilizer, seeds and whatever you need for the agriculture. I think this is one of the key things that can be done. Of course, I’m sure each nation will be starting to make more proper plans on how to better prepare for this kind of shock in the near future.

THOM: On the topic of meat production more specifically, it’s been mentioned that there are some inefficiencies fundamentally in growing food to then feed to animals and then humans consuming those animals. Can you describe more about what that process is like and what that inefficiency means for the system? You talked about lower meat consumption, for example freeing up more farm land for growing food directly for people rather than for cows for example, can you explain more about that?

KUMMU: Part of the main production is sustainable because the cows or other animals they eat products or side products from the farming that are unusable directly for humans so in that sense part of that is, it provides good protein. Almost half of the global crop land goes to the animal feed and for example cow is very inefficient, every calorie you put into the cow you get five to 10 percent back, in protein wise same. Chicken is much more efficient, still you lose roughly 60 to 80 percent of the calories you feed to a chicken rather than you would if you ate it yourself. Of course, you cannot compare, it’s not that simple as that. It’s not efficient for sure. From a resource point of view, water scarcity, 50 percent of the population lives under water scarcity. The water footprint of the vegetarian meal is much less than the heavy meat-based meal.

THOM: You brought up water and I know you’ve done a lot of other research about water and access to water around the world, that’s another big factor in animal protein farming, the need for such large amounts of water for these animals and the production of that. That may be under pressure in the future as access to water in some parts of the world for people is threatened, right?

KUMMU: Yeah. Most people live under some sort of water scarcity and we cannot free up more land, that’s already in use basically, we don’t want to cut rainforest. We can use the water more efficient; we can again reduce the food loses, which again we would also reduce the use of resources going to food production. According to [INAUDIBLE -- 0:35:54.5] study, we found that depending on how you do the diet change, towards the less meat, for example, already 30 percent, cutting the meat consumption by 30 percent, we could already save most of the water. After that, the meat production is actually quite sustainable from water perspective. Not huge cuts, we don’t need to go vegan to safe the resources but there is room.

THOM: Thank you, Matti. Stella, does scarcity of products affect people’s nutrition choices?

VOLPE: Typically, yes, scarcity of products will affect people’s nutrition choices. Typically, as we have seen in this pandemic, people will try to get to as much as possible of those food sources that have been more scarce like meat, the non-food sources like toilet paper and even the canned foods, which is again, as I said earlier, that’s good, people can get great nutritious meals from them. What has been happening I’m sure in all your areas is that store have now limited what people can buy, typically to two packs for meat for example, so that we have more for others. What that can do to people though as far as their intake is, I think generally what people have done is they try to get a lot and freeze a lot so that they have it over time and from a standpoint that makes a lot of sense, right? But from a standpoint of ensuring that enough people have it, the fact that stores have limited access is a very good way to move forward.

THOM: What other tips do you have about maintaining good physical activity and good nutrition choices during this pandemic?

VOLPE: The one thing is to try to keep meals regular as much as you possibly can, the three meals a day or if people eat six smaller throughout the day, to try to be as regular as you can. When it comes to physical activity, I love to exercise, I know that some people went to into this pandemic probably still hating to exercise but we’re at our computers a lot more, those of us who aren’t on the frontlines and so if they can think about getting up every hour, even if it’s to walk around their apartment. If they have an outdoor area to walk that’s safe and they can be socially distant, to walk outside. If you have dogs like my husband and I do, we definitely have to take them multiple walks aside from the physical activity get, they’re now working out with us which is kind of funny. It makes it sort of fun to be with us.

THOM: And right no cue.

VOLPE: Did you actually hear that? Right before we started, I’m like -- they’re happy right now on the enclosed porch right now. I don’t know if you could hear them Thom, two big German Shephard’s, they require a lot of activity. The one thing for people, for activity, my little motto as always been BTN, better than nothing. Something is always better than doing nothing, even if someone started this pandemic not being very active, five minutes a day will still be better than not doing anything at all, of just simple walking.

THOM: Thank you, Stella. Ben, we have another question from Sophie in the chat, the follow up that she had meant to ask earlier and we got into another question. Sophie, would you like to ask that?

SOPHIE: Sorry, I remember the question. You said that America had managed to successfully pivot from food service to basically retail. In Europe, what seems to be happening with beef, more expensive cuts of meat and a lot of milk things like butter and powder and all of that, they’re all going now into storage because the EU is offering private storage aid. Have you heard about that or are you looking at that and thinking -- what does that say to you, if you’ve heard about it?

RUDDELL: Now, first, my work is mostly US focused, so that’s where I have my biggest expertise. I think that what this shows you is that these are critical supply chains, we’re talking about them because this is an emergency. During emergencies you realize that there are some parts of the economy, the supply chain and the infrastructure that are far more important than others, that is they are far more fundamental. Food is one of those, also medical equipment, pharmaceuticals, healthcare, telecommunications, fuel, electricity, water, stuff like that. I think what this is showing you is that in critical parts of the economy and the supply chain, the government has a large and important regulatory role, which is very consequential. What you just mentioned highlights a difference in the regulatory and management structure for critical food supply chains between the US and Europe. I think that during the forensics we will do after this emergency, it will become very clear which governmental approaches to regulating critical supply chains are more effective and I think we need some major reform in all countries to deal with critical supply chain regulation. I’ll give you a couple more examples though. The medical equipment and pharmaceutical components of the supply chain in the United States have been a huge mess and I think that’s largely due to a failure of the Federal Government to properly recognize that those are critical supply chains and properly support stockpiling, domestic self sufficiency and production and diverse supply chains and US domestic supply chains for medical supplies and pharmaceuticals. We get all of our pharmaceuticals, all is an exaggeration, we get a large fraction of our pharmaceuticals from overseas, we didn’t have enough production capacity sitting on sidelines to back fill that or especially to backfill medical equipment. These things need to be regulated; they need to be regulated properly. I won’t criticize Europe’s approach, what I’ll say is, it’s too late for this disaster but we need to be much more ready for the next one as governments in area of critical supply chains.

THOM: Thank you, Ben.

MARTINO: Thom, could I just jump in?

THOM: Carmen, please, absolutely. 

MARTINO: We’ve been talking about the diversity of supply chains and how nimble the US appears to be in some situations and not so much in others. One of the things that I think gets lost in this is that where you have supply chains that are very diverse, you usually have lots of contractors and that’s what makes the supply chain diverse, you can move from one party to the next. Those contractors usually are not so interested in being employers any more than the people who need stuff on their shelves at a Walmart or a Target, everybody just wants their stuff moved quickly. They only way you get that diversity and that movement is by having a work force that’s very easy to use and drop off and pick up whenever you need it. What you’ll find with a lot of contractors and sub-contractors is that they use temporary workers. Our supply chains are filled with temporary workers, you can find temporary workers all the way back to China’s supply chains for lots of goods that we purchase from there. All along the way there are temporary workers or workers who are sub-contractors or sub-sub-contractors, this is what makes these jobs low wage and this is what creates horrible conditions in many situations for these workers. It’s not just the meat packing industry, you pick the supply chain and I’ll find a contractor and a temp agency that goes with it and the low wage that’s attached to it somewhere down the line. It’s important to point out because on the one hand I think a diverse supply chain is important in being able to address a problem like we have right now clearly but on the other hand, if we lose sight of the people who are actually moving the goods and if those people can’t make a decent living and if their conditions of work are horrible, then it’s something we have to take a look at. It’s something that people don’t have enough information about it or aware of. You push the button everyday and you hit send and the next thing you know whatever you ordered is at the front door tomorrow and how it got there, we don’t know and we don’t ask. That’s worth pointing out here, I think.

THOM: Yeah, great points, thank you. For either you or for Ben, any thoughts about how long it will take for an operation like Smith Field or Tyson, who have closed plants to get back to full operation?

RUDDELL: I’ll give a short answer. This is based on what little I know about meat processing operations, I’m not an expert in that operational area. I understand that this is limited entirely by the sickness of workers and so those operations have the exact same problems that the rest of our society does. In other words, this is going to be with us for while. Where are they going to get healthy workers from who aren’t going to get infected? They are waiting on vaccinations, testing regimes, especially testing regimes which need to be aggressively implemented in critical areas of the supply chain with workers, to protect their health and to ensure operations. I think this is going to be a lingering problem that’s going to come and go in meat processing operations and in other areas that are affected by the illness until we can solve the broader problem.

THOM: We have another question from the chat, from one of our media attendees, Susan from the Detroit Free Press. Are you able Ben to differentiate between the kinds of animal protein production and one or the other being more affected by supply chain disruptions, for example, pork, beef, chicken, would one be able to regroup more quickly than others?

RUDDELL: That’s a good question. I can differentiate in the data, we can dig into that, although it’s a bit of work. In the Few View Tool that’s on the internet you’re going to find all meat and seafood lumped into one supply chain category, so you’ll be able to see that for the US economy in some detail. My interpretation of the difference at this point and I could be proven wrong by work over the next year or two that digs into the details, but my interpretation is that this is a matter of luck so far. I don’t think that there are large differences between those different types of proteins. I think that you’re experiencing outbreaks due to luck and chance in some areas and not in others. I think that probably other areas will be hit that haven’t been so far, if my logic holds. There is an element of chance in these systems. We are lucky, I was telling Thom before, we’re lucky that New York City, which has been hit the hardest in the United States, is not a major supply chain hub in a lot of areas, like for food production or energy, the way that Chicago or Los Angeles is. That was luck and I think there is an element of luck here too or bad luck as the case may be. Resilience though, resilient systems help you deal with bad luck, that’s the key. It’s the difference between bad luck taking a system down, verses a system bouncing back.

THOM: We’re talked a lot about if the meat supply chain is majorly disrupted, some of the effects being lower meat consumption which could be a positive for public health and maybe less food waste or less inefficient food production. A lot of those things like positives, what are some more of the risks to these industries? How many people they employ for example or other factors that might be work considering? I want to ask Ben also if you could explain a little bit more from your perspective, a question I asked to Matti earlier about the carbon footprint and the inefficiency of meat production, what can you tell us about that?

RUDDELL: Brief answer to the first question and then I’ll answer the second in more length. I think other than the supply chain risk of not having meat, the human toll of this situation is gigantic and it’s the main cost. When I talk about resilience it can sound a little bit glib, when I talk about shifting from one part of the supply chain to another and being nibble, every time that happens there is big winners and losers. This is a shock that’s going on and it is ordinary people and primarily the work force that loses their jobs that is affected most severely by that. That is the major risk, it’s the major cost of these shocks and it’s a great reason to avoid them in the future. To your second question. There was already some great answers given by Matti and others on environmental impacts and footprints of supply chains. It is right that meat in general and beef specially has the highest footprints on the environment of any area of our food supply. In fact, beef consumption is one of the largest environmental impacts that any person makes on the planet. If you compare it to all kinds of human behaviors and consumption, that is one of the biggest footprints and that’s true in terms of water quality, it’s true in terms of water consumption, it’s true in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, land use. Cattle use a lot of resources. I want to point the media to specific example which I found particularly interesting. I help Brain Rector early this year with a paper that mapped out beef supply chains and consumption and their water footprints in the Western US. Western US is one of the most water stressed places in the world, it’s also a big beef producing region. There is a cool take home fact, we were able to demonstrate that the people of Los Angles, the citizens of Los Angles use more Colorado River water through their beef consumption then they take out of the Colorado River in their aqueduct, that’s the main water supply for the city. Think about that. By eating beef that’s produced using western alpha, which is arrogated using Colorado River water, that uses more water from the Colorado River then all of the factories, lawns and showers and all the drinking water for the City of Los Angles. 

THOM: That’s remarkable. Another question for Matti at Aalto University. What other threats are you looking at that may arise in the coming months that would be a major disaster on top of the pandemic in disrupting global food production and how many people would it affect, what could that look like?

KUMMU: Before the pandemic I’d looking at the famine in Africa and other parts, already without this crisis there were roughly 130 million people suffering of acute hunger and this is predicted to double this to more than 250 million people globally. There are for example conflicts in Middle East, Northern Africa putting Yemen for example, already 17 million people going close to famine there. The local situation in Africa now spreading to Middle East, might cut the yields by several tens of persons. Particularly that part of the world it will be really, really -- call it the perfect storm. There are multiple stressors and this pandemic is just on top of everything else, it’s really close to collapsing the societies, the food security and others. On top of that, the donors, like big donor US, EU, they are suffering, they are now concentrating on their own crisis, unable probably to free enough money to help the situation. I’m very concerned on the situation there and that’s just one of the examples globally.

THOM: Thank you. Carmen, what can you tell us about research that’s being done with an OSHA grant that you are working on about food processing and health and safety in the work place in this kind of situation?

MARTINO: We have several grants that -- the Occupational Safety and Health Administration offers Susan Hardwood training grants annually and we’ve been able to secure those over a period of years. Primarily we work with low wage workers in New Jersey and a lot of the work that we’ve done historically is with warehouse workers, more recently with restaurant workers and we’ve worked with poultry workers on a project in North Carolina not too long ago, helping them out with developing a training program, health and safety training program for workers who work in the poultry industry down there. A lot of research historically has been based on trying to figure out ways that we can get employers to recognize that their workers are their best resources with regards to health and safety and that if workers are knowledgeable about what the regulations are, what the standards are, they’re the best people to be in a position to enforce them and to keep the workplace safe. It works best in situations where employers have given workers or workers have fought for the opportunity to have a voice at the table to be able to have health and safety committees that work on equitable terms where the workers feel confident and comfortable about talking about what their concerns are and then employers address them on equitable terms and they are able to solve problems. A lot of our research historically has been driven in that direction in a variety of industries. The formula is pretty much the same regardless of the industry. If workers have a voice, if they have a health and safety committee in place that allows them to identify problems and they comfortable going to management with the problems then problems are solved and the workplaces are safer. It’s a pretty simple formula but we’ve found that when it’s implemented and the employer embraces it, normally if there is a union in place it works better but we’ve seen it in situations where it doesn’t necessarily have to be a union environment for it to work fairly efficiently.

THOM: Thank you. I want to bring us towards a close here. I have one more question for each panelist that I want to do in a little bit of a lightening round, if you can give a short answer to this question. If there are any other questions from the media in attendance please do chat them to us and we’ll get to it before we close up. First, for each of you, what is one thing that you would like to change based on this discussion at this point in time that we are in based on the way that you’ve looked at the situation and that data that you have access to and your expertise? Ben, what would you say is one thing that you would want to change?

RUDDELL: One thing I would want to change about how we handled the situation?

THOM: Yeah.

RUDDELL: I think this shows the importance of preparedness and of social action, both at the individual level and also in terms of government regulation in critical supply chains. At the same time, without disrupting the inherent resilience of a free market system, which I think has been one of our ingredients to success in the United States so far. We have to strike that balance but a little more of the regulation and social action please.

THOM: Okay, Stella, what do you think would be something that you would want to see changed?

VOLPE: Many Thom but I will say one is that we should have had much quicker testing for everyone, set up very quickly just like many other countries have done very quickly. We needed to model other countries in doing that.

THOM: Matti?

KUMMU: Global cooperation, so instead of using the energy for fighting or accusing other, to really work together and join the forces in each aspect, not only the testing or vaccine but all aspects of the crisis.

THOM: Carmen, what would you change?

MARTINO: I would like to see workers have a real right to refuse unsafe work and that includes when workers feel like their employer is not doing their duediligence to protect them from the virus, that the worker should have the opportunity to say, “No, we’re not going to work until this problem is resolved.” And that’s a universal right to refuse, not just for meat packers but for anybody who might be exposed to the virus right now.

THOM: Thank you very much. Thank you to all of the experts for your wonderful insights and responses to our questions. Thank you to the media that have attended. With that, we’ll go ahead and close. For Stella Volpe at Drexel University, Matti Kummu at Aalto University, Carmen Martino at Rutgers and Ben Ruddell at Northern Arizona, thank you all very much. Thank you everyone for joining. Stay safe, stay well and good luck.