Are we going to run out of food? That primal question seemed to be on the minds of many Americans when the gravity of the coronavirus pandemic first became clear. As society went into lockdown, millions rushed to grocery stores to stock up on whatever they could buy. Toilet paper was the earliest and most high-profile victim. But people turned their eyes to the food section as well, clearing out shelves of whatever might be deemed useful in an apocalypse.
If the sight of empty shelves at some grocery stores today gives you a sense of foreboding, you can probably rest assured — for now at least. A shortage of food supplies in the U.S. is unlikely in the foreseeable future. The local shortages that people have seen so far have been the result of supply chains thrown into confusion by a rapid change in consumption patterns. Although there could be price fluctuations of certain products, the U.S. still produces more than enough food to provide for its needs. The pandemic is not going to change that.
“There weren’t proper procedures to protect the people doing the work: produce workers, warehouse employees, transport workers, and store employees.”
Covid-19, however, is a threat to those people whose invisible labor we rely on: the underpaid, overexploited workers who harvest, transport, and stock the food that keeps society functioning.
“The worry in the food supply chain was always about activities that were labor intensive,” said Ananth Iyer, a professor of operations management at Purdue University, “and where there weren’t proper procedures to protect the people doing the work: produce workers, warehouse employees, transport workers, and store employees.”
While most of the U.S. shelters at home, these essential workers have not been doing well. In the past several weeks, grocery store workers and farm laborers have started contracting and dying from Covid-19 in increasing numbers. In some places, the disease is already pushing people to a breaking point. This week, a massive meat-processing plant in Minnesota became the latest to shut down after a Covid-19 outbreak among workers. Many employers have continued pressing employees to work in unsafe and exploitative conditions, raising the possibility of more illnesses and shutdowns to come.
The economic impact of the pandemic is likely to land hard on these workers when the pandemic ends. Shifting consumption patterns means that industries maniacally focused on efficiency will likely slash employment levels. Among the victims could also be food service workers — presently frozen out of jobs amid the shutdown — who could return to an economy where far fewer people are willing to venture outside to eat.
“It’s estimated that in the United States, 50 to 55 percent of food consumption normally takes place outside the home, at restaurants, fast food outlets, and entertainment venues,” added Iyer. “All of a sudden, that came to a complete halt and now the question is whether we will even go back to that. If we don’t, there will be serious adjustments in the restaurant industry affecting the millions of people who work there.”
As is so often the case, a socioeconomic crisis is offering the chance for people with political power to push through policies that they’d quietly dreamed of implementing. The present turmoil in the food supply chain is no different: In the wake of the pandemic, the agricultural industry looks ready to place the burden onto its most exploited workers by cutting the wages of migrant farm laborers. In this, they have a willing ally in the White House. In the name of supporting farmers, the Trump administration is proposing a new “wage relief” program to allow agricultural firms to cut migrant workers’ salaries to save money during the pandemic.
The proposal has gone largely under the radar while the country reels from news of Covid-19 deaths and job losses. But it may have serious consequences for what American society looks like when people eventually emerge from quarantine.
“At the moment the agriculture industry recognizes that the social turmoil caused by the pandemic has created something like a fog of war, in which they can press for lots of things that society normally would have no tolerance for,” said Ricardo Salvador, director of the food and environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists and an expert at the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, which recently published a communique on the crisis. “It’s a basic principle of economics that if you successfully cut wages at the lowest rung of the economy, it is going to have a ripple effect up through the blue-collar range. To put it another way, if you depress the wages for the poorest people, you depress wages for everyone.”
“The pandemic is exposing the big lie of industrial agriculture and its claim that this is the only way to feed the world.”
Major cities in the U.S. have seen staggering queues in front of food banks, while at the same time, farmers are destroying excess produce, meat, and dairy in other parts of the country. The shock of the pandemic has suddenly made visible the massive inefficiency and waste that takes place in a highly centralized industrial food system.
At the same time, some experts say that it is also showing what does work: local networks of farms that are biodiverse and don’t run the risk of crashing all at once when something goes wrong.
“We’re seeing horror stories of farmers throwing milk away and food being destroyed in fields,” said Raj Patel, a research professor at the University of Texas and author of “Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System.” “But the reality is that these stories are all coming out of industrial supply chains. Farmers who are part of local networks are not throwing away food; in fact, they are rushing to keep up with demand.”
Patel went on, “The pandemic is exposing the big lie of industrial agriculture and its claim that this is the only way to feed the world. When one big supply chain runs everything, the entire system becomes fragile. The reality is that smaller and more diverse networks of agriculture are the most resilient.”
We’re not going to run out of food as a result of Covid-19, even though millions could be impoverished to the point where proper nourishment becomes difficult to access. Nonetheless, even the shoppers with money today to clear out grocery shelves might be in trouble in the future absent serious agricultural reforms.
“It is important we recognize sooner than later how fragile our food supply system is,” warned Patel. “Because, as climate trends suggest, this will not be the first crisis we face.”