Opinion: Looking at domestic and international food security through an Indigenous perspective

Editor’s Note: Agri-Pulse and The Chicago Council on Global Affairs are teaming up to host a monthly column to explore how the U.S. agriculture and food sector can maintain its competitive edge and advance food security in an increasingly integrated and dynamic world.

Immediately before COVID brought the world to a standstill, the Native American Agriculture Fund (NAAF) published a report titled “Reimagining Native Food Economies.” While on its face, the report makes the argument for a modern-day intertwined infrastructure to support food systems in Indian Country, the actual spirit of the Report harkens back to the ingenuity of our ancestors and their food and fiber trade routes. These routes, long in place throughout the northern hemisphere and what was to become the US, supplied food and shared production best practices among other Tribal Nations for centuries before the arrival of the first immigrants to the United States. The Report details how agricultural infrastructure based in rural regions and sub-regions, supported by Tribes and Tribal entities, could one day liberate the small producer of the financial burden and associated risks of scaling up food production. The unburdening would be accomplished by allowing producers access to shared processing, packaging, storage, and distribution facilities. Additionally, these hubs and sub hubs could provide access to transportation and distribution lines, shared marketing, food safety, technical support, and sales staff. This idea has been successful for many cooperatives domestically and around the world. The Report recognizes that the burden of building infrastructure cannot fall on the individual producer – they need the capital access and shared effort of others, which is often found in the corporate agriculture space. 

Another report conducted by the NAAF and partners,  entitled Reimagining Hunger Responses in Times of Crisis, revealed that over half the respondents during the pandemic experienced some form of food insecurity. The Report further concluded that during COVID-19, almost half (47 percent) reported receiving food assistance from their Tribal government (see pg. 32). The report reflected the efforts taken by Tribes to feed their people and again showed that Tribal governments have the knowledge, wisdom, assets, and resources to feed their communities. Further, it highlights the untapped potential of Tribes to be active participants in a food supply chain on a local level. While this report focuses on food insecurity amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it must be read in conjunction with the previous report to realize the full picture of how accessible infrastructure is critical to feeding our communities. 

What has been missing for too long is the recognition that we cannot achieve shared goals of food security without shared effort and responsibility. It is now time for this hybrid shared-effort approach to align individual and corporate farming to work in synchronization while expanding the production and availability of food. Our domestic food security – even global food security – depends on our willingness to share risks and rewards and do what is necessary to build more widely accessible infrastructure. For many producers, the glaring lack of infrastructure became even worse during COVID and highlighted the terrible truth that this infrastructure won’t build itself. Efforts from the current Administration, however, as well as successes within Tribal communities indicate that change is possible.

In July of 2021, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced $500 million for expanded meat & poultry processing capacity to increase competition and level the playing field for family farmers and ranchers across the United States. This original $500 million was followed by almost $1 billion dollars announced on January 3rd, 2022, to expand meat and poultry processing. This additional funding and servicing will explore the expansion of additional smaller-scale meat production facilities to support greater market access, more direct marketing sales, and increased resiliency of the food system and the individual, independent farmer, and rancher. Just as the country built a highway system decades ago to facilitate our ability to get from place to place, the country will need to help build a meat processing infrastructure to support producers and communities. In Oklahoma alone, three tribes have opened meat processing plants during COVID.

Tribes have felt first-hand the issues associated with meat production. Three-fourths (75 percent) of American Indian/Alaska Natives – operated farms specializing in livestock production, compared with about half (53 percent) of U.S. farms overall. Those engaged in this type of farming generated $2.1 billion in sales of livestock and livestock products in 2017. With nearly 60 million acres in Tribal production, Native American producers account for 6 percent of overall U.S. Farmland.

In Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri and Texas, there were over 25,000 producers in 2017. In Oklahoma on the Missouri boarder, the Quapaw Nation exists. Six years ago The Quapaw Nation opened their multimillion dollar meat processing plant. It was the first USDA-inspected processing plant located on tribal territory that a tribe owns and operates. The Tribe processes meat for their own use for community purchase, within their gaming and other facilities as well as processing meat for non-tribal members. Some ranchers formally had to send their cattle across many states for processing, now they can turn to their neighbors in Northeastern Oklahoma.

Realizing the security in possessing access to a meat processing plant three other Oklahoma Tribes started the process of building their own plants during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Osage Nation was able to stand their processing plant up in less than one year. This project and a new greenhouse and aquaponics facility are being underwritten by funds made available through the Coronavirus Assistance, Relief, and Economic Security Act. More Tribes are using similar funding to pursue their own food security initiatives. These examples indicate that success is possible, but state and federal efforts need work to ensure these outcomes are accessible on a wider scale. 

Through COVID, we have realized a need for both large and small-scale farming, production, and processing facilities. That shared infrastructure can also set the stage for access to more global markets. The Tribes who have stepped forward to build processing capacity are not doing so in isolation. They encourage their non-Indigenous neighbors to engage with this new infrastructure and create new opportunities within their own and the broader community.

To make this vision a reality, Tribal Governments, nonprofits, and the Federal Government need to work together. New forms of capital will be required. NAAF has already begun responding to the capital needs by building an alternative lending arm within the Farm Credit system through an Other Financial Institution (OFI). This new minority-led OFI was announced in December of 2021, in conjunction with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and the work they are pursuing on behalf of Black American farmers. 

We believe that shared efforts and risks, interconnected infrastructure, and a reimagined food system accessible to all and designed with communities in mind can achieve our food security goals. Global food security cannot be achieved if we isolate from one another; domestic food security cannot be achieved if we do not work together to build, operate, maintain, and grow a processing infrastructure accessible to everyone.

Toni Stanger-McLaughlin, J.D., a citizen of the Colville Confederated Tribes, serves as the Chief Executive Office (CEO) of the Native American Agriculture Fund (NAAF). Mrs. Stanger-McLaughlin has compassionately worked in agriculture law and policy for many years. Before being named the CEO of NAAF, she served as the first NAAF Director of Programs where she assisted the development and delivery of millions of dollars of NAAF philanthropic investment in Tribal food systems.

For more opinions and ag news, go to: www.Agri-Pulse.com.

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