The Effects of COVID-19 Will Ripple through Food Systems
March 26, 2020

As winter gives way to spring, farmers across the U.S. are ramping up for the growing season—hiring workers, purchasing materials and taking orders. But measures to rein in the COVID-19 pandemic may derail some of those efforts, experts say. “Everybody is scrambling to figure out what to do,” says Gail Feenstra, deputy director of the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program at the University of California, Davis, who studies food systems and supply chains. “There’s just a lot of disruption.”

Though the extent of the blow to U.S. food production is unclear—and will depend on how long the pandemic and countermeasures last—widespread food shortages are unlikely anytime soon, several researchers say. Agriculture is considered essential work under the shelter-in-place orders expanding across the country. But farmers must still adhere to social-distancing requirements and can be buffeted by regulations and other changes along the food supply chain, such as the shuttering of restaurants.

Some work can easily continue with little interruption. For example, many U.S. farmers producing staple crops, including wheat and rice, do so with mechanized tools that already limit human-to-human contact and fall within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for limiting the spread of the coronavirus. The nonprofit International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) reported earlier this month that COVID-19 does not currently pose major threats to overall global food security because adequate stores of staples remain available.

But higher-value and more specialized crops face a greater number of hurdles, says Will Martin, a senior research fellow at IFPRI and a co-author of the report. These foods—such as some fruits and organic produce grown by smaller-scale farms—generally require more labor. They are also often sold to restaurants and farmers markets, many of which are now widely closed or have reduced service across the country, rather than directly to the grocery stores that are still operating. Even if these farmers are able to continue working, they may have limited places to sell their goods. “That’s a big problem,” Martin says. Higher-value goods are also more likely than major staple crops to experience a price spike caused by COVID-19 disruptions, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

The situation is to be expected in a pandemic, Martin says, citing a 2006 World Bank report that outlines how efforts to contain such outbreaks—including restaurant closures and disruptions to public transportation and tourism—tend to take a larger toll on the global economy than the hours of work lost from people falling ill. The report estimated that a modern pandemic similar to the 1918 Spanish flu would result in a 0.9 percent loss in GDP because of sick workers, compared with a 1.9 percent loss linked to policies enforced to control infection. Farmers of high-value crops get hit especially hard by those policies, Martin says.

One example comes from apple orchards, which require large crews to plant and prune trees. Pruning helps eliminate diseased branches and gives foliage more access to sunlight. But many apple growers rely on seasonal workers from outside of the country for these tasks, and many of these workers are struggling to get visas processed because of embassy and federal office closures. Without an adequate workforce, growers may have to leave trees unplanted and branches unpruned. This neglect could lead to losses later this season and in future years, says Diane Kurrle, senior vice president of the USApple Association, a nonprofit organization based in Falls Church, Va., that represents growers and others in the industry.

Strawberries are another crop likely to be affected, though for different reasons. California strawberry growers do not rely as heavily on a workforce from outside of the U.S., but laborers would typically congregate more closely than is advised to prevent the spread of the virus. Mark Bolda, a University of California Cooperative Extension farm adviser based in Watsonville, says farmers he has spoken to in the surrounding county—where roughly 40 percent of the state’s strawberries sold fresh are produced—have already begun making plans to spread workers between rows.

Strawberries, however, hit prime ripeness within a narrow window of just two to three days and must be picked quickly, Bolda says. Spacing workers this way may slow picking, which could lead to more fruit being left to rot in the fields. This situation could, in turn, slow the harvest process even further as workers pause to remove old fruit so rot does not spread to ripening berries. Such a slowdown would reduce the amount of fruit picked per hour that workers were paid for and could hurt a farmer’s profits, Bolda says. “Being slower is expensive.”

In Maine, growers of lowbush blueberries—the state’s highest-grossing crop after potatoes—are currently preparing for their annual import of roughly 50,000 beehives, which arrive on flatbeds from around the country during the spring bloom in April and May. Blueberries rely heavily on bees to transfer pollen, because their narrow flowers are not well adapted for wind pollination. Native bee populations are not substantial enough to support the state’s roughly 3,800 acres of lowbush blueberry fields. So growers rent honeybee hives to boost their yields in the nation’s second-largest commercial pollination event after one devoted to California almonds, says Lily Calderwood, a wild blueberry specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

But transporting hives on flatbeds requires special training, notes Maine beekeeper Lincoln Sennett, who owns a honey business and leases his bees for blueberry pollination. If truck drivers fall ill with COVID-19, beekeepers may struggle to find capable substitutes. Going without these hives could take a serious toll on this year’s blueberry yield. “It would be very bad,” Calderwood says, noting that a single hive can increase yields by up to 1,000 pounds.

As COVID-19 leads to widespread income losses, fewer consumers may be able to afford specialized or high-value products, including organic vegetables, notes Megan Konar, a civil and environmental engineer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Reductions in such purchases could further stress growers, especially if they sell directly to consumers at markets rather than through grocery stores. “This is an interesting extreme event to food systems, because it’s really just a social event,” she explains. “There’s no weather shock or infrastructure failure or shortcoming.” Natural disasters tend to only impact a particular area—a hurricane may wipe out crops in Florida, for example—but the coronavirus has had a much more pervasive effect on a social and institutional level. “It’s a bit of a different sort of disaster than normal,” Konar says.

If additional environmental stressors do arise this season—such as the river flooding from snowmelt and spring rains anticipated in the Midwest—the industry will become yet more vulnerable, Konar adds. “Whenever you bombard the agricultural sector with simultaneous hazards, it accumulates,” she says. “It all adds up and makes it a harder season.”