By Commissioner Leonhardt
My military experience has taught me two very important things. In a global economy, no country should ever want foreign powers to have influence over the access to food or energy. Right now, we are seeing this lesson play out right here in America during this pandemic. Gas prices have plummeted as OPEC and Russian companies have flooded the market to punish the United States’ gas boom. At the same time, despite America being the largest beef producer in the world, we are seeing scarcity for protein in our stores. Both problems are the result of mass imports despite our ability to produce within our borders. How we change this tide is we must strive for economic independence and stability to avoid crises such as these in the future.
As Commissioner of Agriculture, one of my top priorities is how we facilitate more protein production in the United States to reduce our dependence on foreign sources. Even though America is the largest beef producer in the world, we still import around $3 billion of it annually. More troubling is many of these products are processed and packaged in the United States because current laws can be labeled as a “Product of the US.” This is because the U.S. no longer requires a “country of origin” labeling that formally mandated retailers notify their customers about sourcing of their food.
Right now, this issue is being highlighted as many U.S. farmers’ flocks and herds are being depopulated before they get the chance to enter the market. American farmers and ranchers are losing money on their livestock as large processing companies continue to bring foreign proteins into the U.S. all the while labeling it as U.S. product. Our agricultural sector produces an abundance which then we are fortunate enough to share with the world, but we must ensure our farmers are competing on an even playing level. As consumers desire more information about the products they consume, we owe them the transparency of where their proteins were raised.
Although the USDA is making efforts to investigate our meat imports, we must begin taking action now. To build local food economies consumers must demand American grown products. Here in West Virginia, you can support these producers by purchasing products labeled “WV Grown.” Asking your grocers to build or increase their locally grown section is another way to drive demand. As always, visiting your local farmers’ market is a great way to get to know your farmer. The power for change is rooted in people as our economy and constitution dictates.
At the federal level, we must revisit country of origin labeling. Consumers are more actively researching the products they purchase every day. This includes how and where something was produces. Like we always preach, know thy farmer know thy food and consumers will demand these changes, inevitably. In the meantime, this pandemic has shown the importance of country origin labeling and how it can affect the health of our country. When we rid the ability of foreign influences in our nation, we will be a stronger country. Until federal leaders act, remember to embrace, support, and do all things we can for our local food economy.