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U.S. Grains Council Riffs on Resiliency

There’s something about being stuck in a city apartment, all day, every day, for weeks on end. Everything starts to feel…the same. The same window, the same chair, the same questionably clean yoga pants. Then, just when I was really getting the hang of things, in came the word resiliency. Without fail, everyone’s new favorite word became yet another familiar piece of my quarantine life. It feels like all anyone is talking about is shocks to the system and how to build supply chains that can withstand them.

It began to cross over, as all things seem to do in this environment, from my work life to my personal life. Was I resilient? What even is that? I reflected on all the experiences that helped cultivate these qualities in my own life. I thought of the times I had struggled and what it taught me about bouncing back.

And then it hit me: it’s easier to tough it out, adapt and come back stronger when you have someone to help carry the load. In other words, we find resiliency in community. It isn’t about doing it alone. In fact, it might mean the opposite.

In my daily work for the US Grains Council, I’m charged with managing our trade policy efforts. As an organization, we promote the export of US coarse grain products and work to develop markets overseas. We have long been an advocate for the importance of global trade, open markets and partnerships with other countries.

Even before COVID-19, our work gave us a front-row seat to the ways the world was beginning to shift. Multilateral organizations were in the crosshairs. One-off, bilateral trade deals were gaining more momentum than regional efforts. Self-sufficiency was the new campaign slogan, from Mexico to Vietnam. And, I started to wonder – even if privately – what this could mean for agriculture, for policy and for the future of global trade.

With the onset of the pandemic, it feels like this shift away from globalization has accelerated. Countries have begun to look inwardly at their own supply chains and to question their reliance on others. It has felt, in the past few weeks, that protectionism might just be on the rise and that global trade might be in jeopardy. An April 8, WTO Press Release forecasted a 13-32 percent decline in global trade. Articles published in news sources from The New York Times to Bloomberg to CNBC have recently posed similar questions.

But, my personal reflections have me wondering about an alternate possibility, one that extends the theory from a March 20, 2020, essay in the Wall Street Journal. It seems to say, not so fast! Globalization might be disrupted, but it isn’t dead. In fact, I wonder: instead of bringing us into a more isolated world, could the pandemic be the event that swings the pendulum back the other way, making us more global and interconnected than ever before? Is it possible we find ourselves understanding the value of having something more robust and more diverse?

In these tumultuous times, some things undoubtedly remain the same. Farmers are still planting, still harvesting and still in their fields. It has become apparent the world still needs food and communities still value safe and reliable supplies, perhaps even more so than they did before.

Some things will inevitably need to change. Companies might be forced to move food differently. Consumers might care more about what that looks like. We might have to re-visit the reasons we do things and how we got here. But, is that such a bad thing?

It is possible that we come out on the other side with a shared sense of responsibility for how our food is produced and moved. Maybe we, as a global community, can finally start rowing in the same direction, agreeing on what it means to be both efficient and responsible. Perhaps, our new reliance on virtual connections might make us more open and more transparent in these conversations. In fact, if anything, a more resilient supply chain might mean more partners, more trade, more collaboration – not less. Maybe it’s the recognition we can’t do everything alone, not in life and certainly not when it comes to safe, reliable food supplies. 

At some point, we will find a new normal. We might find a new chair or a new window (just please let me keep the yoga pants). But whatever this new, more resilient normal ends up looking like, I think we can find a resilient way to manage or recreate what global trade can be – together.

Allison Nepveux serves as the Manager of Trade Policy for the U.S. Grains Council, a non-profit organization that promotes the use of U.S. barley, corn, sorghum and related products worldwide. In this capacity, she will develop and implement trade policy and biotechnology programs and assist overseas offices with market access initiatives.

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