Disruptions to Food Production Could Mean Struggles for Certain US Food Businesses

Some farmers struggling to conduct farming with restrictions like social distancing in place.
Some farmers struggling to conduct farming with restrictions like social distancing in place.

March 27, 2020 — Across the US, farmers are beginning to ramp up their preparations for the growing season during the continual COVID-19 pandemic. Agriculture is considered an essential service under the shelter-in-place orders that are expanding across the US. However, the effects of the pandemic are being felt throughout the food production chainwith some farmers struggling to conduct farming with certain restrictions in place, like physical or social distancing.

Gail Feenstra is deputy director of the Sustainable Agricultural Research and Education Program and the University of California and studies supply chains and food systems. “Everybody is scrambling to figure out what to do,” she states. “There’s just a lot of disruption.”

Which farmers will face disruption?

It is important to note that widespread food shortages are unlikely anytime soon, as researchers have recently emphasized. Farmers that produce stable crops such as wheat and rice, use mechanized tools with limited human interaction and that fall within the prevention guidelines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). On the contrary, higher-value and specialized crops face bigger challenges.

Specialized crops include certain fruits and organic produce that are grown by smaller farms. These crops require more labor and could experience price spikes due to the disruptions caused by COVID-19.

How does this disruption affect the food industry?

These specialized crops are mostly sold to restaurants, especially those with specialized menu items such as vegan and organic options. Restaurants are already taking a hard hit, as many are being forced to close their doors to the public temporarily and provide take-out or home delivery service only. Introducing a price spike to particular food items will add to the financial stress that many food businesses are already feeling. It is likely that food businesses that provide specialized menu items may have to cease or reduce operations greatly — or consider switching out food items for those from stable crops. It is clear that we are only beginning to see the long-term effects of COVID-19 on food production and the food industry as a whole.