It was only a matter of time before the right set of circumstances produced a global pandemic. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean the pillars of civilization were ready for it. From everyday routines to the largest industries, COVID-19 hasn’t yet finished disrupting business-as-usual.
Agriculture has been in an especially vulnerable position since the beginning of the outbreak. Here are some of the ways the coronavirus has disrupted agricultural processes, food distribution and trade across the world.
1. Low Prices and Whole Markets Shut Down
U.S. dairy producers were already in a difficult financial position before the pandemic. According to one report, dairy producers now face plummeting prices and an overabundance of supply due to collapsing exports to traditionally heavy diary importers like China.
People eating more meals at home is another factor impacting milk and cheese producers and leading to unbalanced supply and demand. Around 40% of dairy production supports foodservice companies, many of which are closed or operating in a limited capacity only.
March featured up to a 36% drop in the price of corn futures, a 31% drop in hog futures and 14% and 8% drops in soybean and cotton futures, respectively. There’s no lack of supply in most of these cases. Yet, much of the farming community can’t move their product because restaurants, schools, universities and hotels — some their most lucrative markets — aren’t buying.
From dumping milk to smashing eggs and plowing vegetables back into the dirt, farmers without a market for their products often turn to grave measures. The situation should be a temporary one, but it won’t be over quickly.
The situation is hard enough on farming families that governments should call for more robust financial and practical intervention. Governments could easily purchase surplus crop products and send them where they’re needed — such as food banks — instead of letting market disruptions take down whole farming communities and see tons of food wasted.
2. Bottlenecks Throughout the Supply Chain
Agriculture helps fill two fundamental needs. The first is staple commodities such as corn, soybeans, wheat and oil seeds. The second is high-value commodities, including fish, vegetables and fruits. Distributing and transporting both kinds requires synergy between the involved parties, from factories and freight companies to distributors and grocery stores.
Bottlenecks can happen at any of these steps. Right now, some of the most disruptive coronavirus effects are in food processing plants and cross-border shipments. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) finds that most food processing plants, including labor-intensive packing and sorting lines, were not compatible with social distancing standards when the outbreak began.
The FAO also notes that major grain exporters in Argentina have been defying government orders to cease outgoing shipments of grain products. If they didn’t, their livelihoods would collapse. Brazil is facing bottlenecks of its own due to virus-related lockdowns. According to the FAO, protracted bottlenecks in Argentina and Brazil could “spell disaster” for global agricultural trade.
3. A Lack of Personal Protective Equipment
The lack of professional-grade medical equipment is a known problem throughout the United States. The N-95 respirators that weren’t hoarded by shoppers at the start of the pandemic are now closely guarded by states and carefully rationed to medical personnel.
Unfortunately, the farming community relies on many of the same kinds of protective gear — including respirators and protective gloves. Respirators are ideal for keeping grain dust out of the nose and mouth, and experts expect this dustto be especially fierce this spring.
Just 10% of 3M’s output of N95 respirators went to the health care sector before COVID-19. Now, 90% of 3M’s masks will assist medical needs. That leaves far fewer options for other essential workers, including agriculture employees.
4. Delayed Product Launches and Equipment Difficulties
Heavy farming equipment is another area that was in poor shape before COVID-19 and was even worse after the virus took hold. Falling farm income, trade wars and climate difficulties have put pressure on the United States’ farm and ag equipment market for years. Amid COVID-19, factory closures, and supply chain reductions have compounded the industry’s financial problems.
The agricultural equipment industry employs 2.8 million citizens, according to Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM) president Dennis Slater. It’s why AEM is lobbying the government to “guarantee the viability” of the industry by reclassifying everyone in the equipment supply chain as essential workers.
Telehandlers are indispensable at farms of all sizes, as are tractors, loaders, backhoes, cultivators and a range of other equipment. Now, some manufacturers have pivoted to assembling face masks and other pandemic necessities. Other companies in the service, supplier and distributor arenas have had to furlough their workers, putting a strain on the entire community.
AEM spokespeople say the industry faces a “grave crisis” that may impact parts availability. Over the longer term, manufacturers may delay or even cancel new products they had in the pipeline.
5. Threats to Farmers’ Health
The farming community has some of the toughest and most determined individuals you’ll find anywhere. The lifestyle does take its toll on the body and mind, however. Additionally, the average age of farm operators in the U.S. is 57.5, around 10 years older than the average in other professions. The global outbreak of COVID-19 is a direct threat to this community, as studies of the virus show that it disproportionately affects the older citizens.
The stresses of the lifestyle also seem to be compounded by the pressures of performing essential and challenging work amid a pandemic. Industry advocates are warning that the outbreak is making already-difficult rural health concerns even more precarious and putting even more of the nation’s farmers at risk of depression and suicide.
Agriculture and COVID-19
Like other industries, agriculture will probably have to find a new normal once COVID-19 turns the corner. Until then, we must focus on finding ways to protect the essential people within this industry from impactful market and world events.