If you rushed to the grocery store at the beginning of March and were shocked to see empty aisles, you might now be wondering how the coronavirus will affect food production. After all, it doesn’t seem like there is much to go around. There are many misconceptions about agriculture, the food supply chain, and the coronavirus. But don’t worry. Here, we’ll answer your questions so you’re all caught up.
Are we Running out of Food?
Currently, the United States is not running out of food and the virus is not affecting crop yields.
In fact, there is an abundance of milk and fruit that is going to waste at this very minute. For instance, dairy farmers in Wisconsin dumped 25,000 gallons of milk because there was no one to buy it. While grocery stores remain open, many restaurants have closed, which means farmers have lost an entire market. Without restaurants to buy their produce and dairy products, farmers have an excess of food.
But what about all those empty aisles?
Yes, people have stocked up on food–mostly canned and packaged nonperishable foods. But the aisles continue to be re-stocked, and there is plenty of produce being grown.
The issue here isn’t whether or not farmers are growing enough food. The biggest issues are finding laborers to work the fields, the process of packaging and transporting food to grocery stores, and the loss farmers will face from a decline in business.
Do we have People Working the Fields?
This is a tricky question because the United States had trouble finding farm labor before the pandemic began.
For years, the United States used foreign labor to pick its fields–usually Mexican immigrants. Foreign-born farm workers began turning away from work in the U.S. in 2007 for a number of reasons, including:
- Reverse migration (migrants are actually returning to their countries)
- Improved education and job opportunities in Mexico
- Declining birthrates
- Increased risk associated with crossing the border illegally.
As Mexico began offering better opportunities for citizens, U.S. jobs began to look unappealing. In addition, the United States’ H-2A Visa Program, which allows foreign workers to enter the U.S. on a temporary basis to work farm fields when there are no local workers available, has various issues that makes it unappealing for workers and farmers alike.
Because of these issues, the U.S. has dealt with labor shortages and food waste for a while. With a decrease in the number of field workers, farmers have had to abandon their crops–left to rot in fields–and sometimes even their businesses. According to a 2012 survey conducted by the California Farm Bureau, 71 percent of fruit tree growers and 80 percent of raisin and berry growers could not find workers to prune trees and vines or harvest crops.
In December of 2019, the U.S. passed the Farm Workforce Modernization Act to revise the H-2A Visa Program. And now, due to the current pandemic, the U.S. State Department has eased requirements for immigrant workers. So hopefully the U.S. will be able to gather enough laborers to work the fields. But for now, no one knows how it will pan out.
Of course, even if we have enough laborers to work the fields, there is still one thing that could change this.
What if Farmers and Laborers get Sick?
If farmers and laborers get sick, there won’t be anyone to pick the fields. This means more food will go to waste and won’t reach the markets. This is one realistic way that the coronavirus could affect food production. But to prevent this from happening, some farmers are employing social distancing and hygienic practices.
Keeping laborers in groups below ten or five and installing hand-washing stations are some ways farmers can and are keeping workers safe. Others, however, aren’t doing enough.
According to Arcenio Lopez, Executive Director of the Mixteco/Inidgena Community Organizing Project, most places “are not taking the necessary precautions, such as informing the workers about what COVID-19 is and basic kind of protocols they should be following to take care of their health.”
If laborers practice social distancing and good hygiene, we can keep the food supply chain steady. But what if they don’t?
If we see a Large Labor Shortage, What Will we Do?
For farmers and the economy, this would be devastating. For everyday consumers, we would need to look for more resourceful ways of finding food.
In many states, farmers markets are seen as essential and are still open. If local grocery stores can’t get food then farmers markets are a logical second choice. Many farmers markets receive produce, dairy, and meat from smaller, local farms that wouldn’t have the same issues as larger farms that have to employ many laborers.
Homeowners can also plant victory gardens in their backyards to grow their own food. If the pandemic lasts into the summer, planting a victory garden now could help prepare you for future food shortages. You can read about victory gardens here.
For now, it seems the coronavirus will not affect food production. If our laborers get sick and we see a large labor shortage, then we should be worried. Just stay calm and garden on!