Dr. Garrett Graddy-Lovelace is an associate professor in the School of International Service at American University. Her work focuses on global environmental and agricultural policy and the domestic and global impacts of US farm policies. Dr. Graddy-Lovelace joins me today to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on food production and distribution and how the pandemic is affecting farmers, farm laborers, and the consumers at the end of the food supply chain.
As we are trying to get groceries for our families, we’re seeing shortages of certain foods. There are so many steps between the field or the farm and our tables, and I think it would be helpful to understand where the choke points are that may be resulting in these shortages.
For example, how much of this has to do with people panic buying or hoarding foods for fear that supplies may be more limited in the future?
I would say that’s not the main driver of the supply chain disruptions. There were little spikes in certain purchases when the lockdowns first started going about a month and a half ago. But really, the major disruptions are because so much of the supply chain was going toward restaurants, school systems, cruise lines, hotels, and entertainment facilities. The sports and athletic industry is a huge purchaser of food. And so there’s a lot of industrial food purchasing that got wiped out within the span of about a week once the lockdown started. All of a sudden, you had all of these farmers and producers who were geared toward bulk purchases by restaurants not having that outlet.
There’s a lot of industrial food purchasing that got wiped out within the span of about a week once the lockdown started.
And the grocery store outlet is much different. Consumers at the grocery store like small portions. There has been some difficulty retooling that whole supply chain away from those big bulk wholesale channels into the different ways that we need to process and distribute food into retail channels.
Are we starting to catch up? Has the industry been able to pivot in a way that is now redirecting that food into the retail channel?
There’s been a lot of entrepreneurial emergency spirit and many producers are trying to navigate how to sell online and how to ramp up their digital marketing skills and try to meet demand in households and decentralize the distribution quite radically.
Farming takes so much energy, skill, and time. To suddenly learn a new skill—online marketing and distribution—it’s hard to manage that.
There are a few producers who have been able to do that rapid learning curve. However, the vast majority have not. So this is really a crisis for producers right now. Already, farming takes so much energy, skill, and time. To suddenly learn a new skill—online marketing and distribution—it’s hard to manage that. Learning that skill, and then the logistics of that, on top of the fact that it takes labor to move food and then protective gear and the social distancing requirements of the pandemic. So I would say on the whole, we’ve seen how not-adaptive the food system is.
This will unfold into a radically decentralized supply chain. It will have to. But it’s been an awkward few weeks, to say the least.
It is interesting to think about how our food distribution systems will be forever altered by this, that this won’t perhaps be just a temporary adjustment, but we may always look at food distribution a little bit differently as a result.
Yes. The pandemic has laid bare the myriad vulnerabilities and inequities of the US food and agricultural system and made them more acute. One example of this is the very long and concentrated food supply chain.
The supply chain is really designed to be invisible with the places and the people behind it unseen, unconsidered, and frankly unvalued.
It’s kind of a “food from nowhere” model where the producer and the consumer have little knowledge of each other. The consumer doesn’t know where or when the food is grown. The supply chain is really designed to be invisible with the places and the people behind it unseen, unconsidered, and frankly unvalued.
We’re hearing a lot that a lot of food is now being destroyed in the fields, both crops and animals being destroyed. That is obviously devastating to farmers. It’s also horrifying for consumers who are worried about being able to get food. What are we doing to make this better in the weeks and months to come?
Yes, good question. Farmers are disking hundreds and thousands of acres of fresh produce into the ground, which means plowing them under because they’re unable to have it be processed and transported because of a lack of labor. The pandemic has radically impacted food workers all along the supply chain and farmworkers.
Let’s talk about that for a minute. The food is available, but we don’t have enough workers to harvest it and perhaps process it—whether that’s washing the lettuce or actually slaughtering the animals. And is this because workers are getting sick and there just aren’t as many people showing up to those various work points along the way? Or is there some other thing that is affecting worker availability?
There’s always been an issue with very unsanitary and exploitative labor conditions for farmworkers in the US. This goes back many, many decades and generations. It’s quite acute right now. Something like 85 percent of fresh produce is still harvested by hand. So much of agriculture is quite mechanized, but in terms of fresh vegetables, a lot of that is still harvested by hand. And it is a largely immigrant labor force and largely undocumented.
These people—men, women, even children—have little recourse to legal help if they’re being exploited or harassed, or if there’s wage theft issues, which are rampant. There’s no paid sick leave. And so they’re encouraged to keep working. People are crammed into trucks, driven to fields, the lodging is cramped. So the whole situation is conducive for outbreaks and contagion, and quite lethal contagion.
Because fresh produce is so time-sensitive, if you don’t have hands to harvest, it will rot.
We’re just learning how many farmworkers have been infected, how many have died, how many can’t work. And there’s been a lot of building up the border from the federal government and that’s also leading to fewer people in the fields working. Because fresh produce is so time-sensitive, if you don’t have hands to harvest, it will rot.
So, the farmers, at that point, don’t know what to do. They are losing their markets and have to disk [crops] just to make sure they’re not spending more labor on their part for a product that’s not going to be able to be processed in time to get to market.
Let’s talk a little bit about some of the government response to this. There have been some big relief efforts approved by Congress to, in part, address the needs of farmers and food suppliers. But are some people being left out of this bailout? Is the money getting to the places it needs to go?
The USDA has earmarked $23 billion in agricultural assistance, but there’s so little oversight to where that money is going. As it turns out, a lot of that is going to the largest producers who oftentimes are export-oriented commodity growers, who are maybe even growing for ethanol. So they’re not even growing for local foods.
So far, [USDA agricultural] funding has not gone to support producers who provide for local or regional supply chains—those farmers growing for farmer’s markets, for schools, for restaurants, those dedicated to really feeding their communities well.
Aid applications are notoriously convoluted, bureaucratic, and inaccessible for many of the small- and medium-sized growers. And so, thus far, that funding has not gone to support producers who provide for local or regional supply chains—those farmers growing for farmer’s markets, for schools, for restaurants, those dedicated to really feeding their communities well.
For consumers at the very end of the supply chain, what can we do to better support but also be supported by our food farmers during this crisis? Are there steps that we can take on the individual household level?
Frankly, just being aware of the supply chain and aware that farmers are also suffering and struggling, and ranchers and fishers, those in the seafood industry. Medium- and small-sized growers have been experiencing declining farm gate prices for many years.
There is some legislation on the books that needs to be thought through and supported. There’s the Relief for America’s Small Farmer’s Act, which hopefully going to be helping small and historically disadvantaged farmers and ranchers to help them navigate what could be financial devastation and land loss.
The Food Chain Worker Alliance has issued a call for OSHA to issue emergency temporary standards for infectious diseases and paid sick leave for the farm food and fishery workers. 21.5 million people work in the food system across the US. These are essential workers, feeding us, and they’re largely systematically undervalued. So there’s been a lot on that front.
The Local Agricultural Marketing Program (LAMP), which got authorized into mandatory funding with the 2018 farm bill, is still radically underfunded, but is one of those examples of a small glimmer of hope within the larger ag policy field.
There’s the Local Agricultural Marketing Program (LAMP), which got authorized into mandatory funding with the 2018 farm bill. It’s still radically underfunded, but that is really one of those examples of a small glimmer of hope within the larger ag policy field. And it really is supporting regional direct supply chains where farmers are selling to consumers and schools and restaurants and, and it’s not getting swallowed up in the kind of massive corporate middleman taking all the profits.
Well, I think a glimmer of hope is exactly the right place to leave this conversation for now. Obviously, we’re going to be experiencing food chain disruption and the repercussions for a long time to come, but if this is an opportunity for us to strengthen our local food chains and the relationships between eaters and growers, and maybe even build a slightly less centralized food system. That would be sort of a silver lining to this storm cloud.
Thank you so much for helping us understand what is happening and prepare for what may be coming in the future, Garrett.