Trade War Challenges in the U.S. Food System

The negative impacts of our trade war with China reverberate throughout the U.S. food and agricultural industries, causing significant changes to our food system and how we interact with it. 

Where American farmers once relied on robust trade agreements with countries like China, they now find themselves faced with the daunting task of identifying and entering new markets. From the consumer perspective, food prices are on the rise and trade tensions have caused a spike in the percentage of food being imported from other countries, bringing with it an increase in food-borne disease.

Last year, the federal government announced a $12 billion dollar farm subsidy that contained within it a 10 percent commitment to the USDA Emergency Food Assistance Program. The food surpluses that resulted from these measures has caused an influx in donations of produce to food banks, institutions that have traditionally been sustained by non-perishable staples.

These challenges for the food system are also creating an opportunity to explore innovative tech-based solutions to new challenges in food and agriculture.

Technology Creates Pathways to New Markets

Since the U.S. began imposing China-specific tariffs in July 2018, farmers have been among the hardest hit. Digital tools and trading platforms have a particularly important role to play in helping farmers to find buyers for their crops. In fact, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) suggests that “digital technologies can support trade in agriculture and food products, by connecting private sector suppliers to new markets, and enabling new ways for governments to monitor and ensure compliance with standards and to provide faster and more efficient border procedures that are essential for perishable products.”

Grainster is one such digital trading platform that hosts a “global and transparent” marketplace where farmers can connect with buyers directly to sell their grain. The tool is helping farmers to eliminate the middleman and get their crops to market in spite of the difficulties they face. A number of similar digital trading platforms are cropping up in response to current market conditions, such as Mercaris and DecisionNext

Technology Expedites Safety Compliance

More food in the United States is being imported than ever before. Last year, The New York Times reported that “More than half of the fresh fruit and almost a third of the fresh vegetables Americans buy now come from other countries.” An estimated 20 percent of the US food is imported today, correlating to an increased outbreak of foodborne illnesses. 

Traceability technologies are being deployed to address food safety issues within the United States and to facilitate trans-national compliance with international food safety requirements, which often differ from country to country. FoodLogiQ is one system developed to create end-to-end supply chain transparency, enabling more reliable recordkeeping and stricter oversight of food products as they move through the global supply chain and across borders. These tools are becoming all the more critical for ensuring food safety and transparency as global food supply chains grow more complex and cross multiple borders. 

As the US Food and Drug Administration notes in a recent publication, food safety problems must be addressed through preventative methods and “preferably before the food arrives at our border or reaches the plates of U.S. consumers.” Traceability tools can help to speed up the inspection process at border points, in particular, by helping inspectors to quickly identify unsafe foods and prevent their entry into the U.S. food system. 

Technology Enhances Anti-Hunger Efforts

The trade war has driven up food prices over the past year. NPR recently tracked an average price increase of 3 percent for products affected by tariffs. Their “shopping cart” registered an astronomical increase in the price of some foods, such as cabbage (up 62.5 percent) and garlic (up 52.7 percent). 

Amid the higher cost of food items, one byproduct of the trade war has been the significant increase in perishable foods donated to food banks resulting from the 10 percent allocation to the USDA Emergency Food Assistance Program. Non-perishable canned food items are the primary staples for food banks, so the influx of perishable food donations has required many to invest in cold food storage equipment to accommodate this temporary inventory.

Food banks are increasingly turning to apps and online platforms to eliminate barriers to getting food to the people who need it most. Food Pantry Helper is an affordable, basic online platform for managing inventory, while the Plentiful app is designed for working families to reserve food items from food banks and helps food bank volunteers and workers streamline their operations. 

The trade war has generated myriad market pressures and obstacles. By leveraging existing technology, we can connect farmers to new markets, reduce wait time for imported foods, improve protections against food-borne diseases, and facilitate timely delivery of perishable food to those who need it most.

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