Covid-19 will be major test for US farms and food supply chains

A large farmworker union in the US has stated that early polling of its members suggests operators of some of America’s largest fresh produce farms aren’t taking steps to protect fieldworkers from the spread of Covid-19.

That’s is troubling news for a food supply chain that experts, so far, have described as robust and resilient in the face of the disease caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2.

Coronavirus outbreaks have concentrated first in densely-populated urban and suburban zones. But it will reach rural farming areas on a delay (pdf), according to data collected (and visualized over time) by the University of Iowa’s Rural Policy Research Institute.

That means any farmers who have not been proactive about protecting their workers may have already unwittingly invited the virus into the food supply chain.

Farmworker unions represent a fraction of the nearly 888,000 people hired to pick fresh produce in US crops and groves, most of which are in central California, Florida, Washington state, and Texas. Still, insights from their members can shed light on what’s happening across the fractured landscape of independent farms.

“Unfortunately, I wish I could say more is being done,” Armando Elenes, the secretary treasurer of United Farm Workers, a California-based farmworkers union with between 8,000 and 10,000 members, told The union regularly polls its workers through social media to get a sense of what pickers are experiencing on the job. It isn’t scientific, Elenes cautioned, but the results are concerning.

“As of [March 30], 77% of workers are reporting that nothing has really changed,” he says. “That’s really alarming for farmworkers because they feel obligated. If they don’t go to work, they don’t get a pay check.”

If that polling accurately reflects what’s happening—or not happening—on farms across the US, it could have a global impact. The more than 400 commodities grown in California represent 13% of US agricultural value, totaling some $50 billion in business each year. For a sense of how consolidated agriculture is, consider that just two California farms supply about 85% of US carrots. If the virus were to disrupt production at the largest of the state’s 77,500 farms, it would be felt globally; a 2018 report (pdf) by the state’s department of food and agriculture put its combined agricultural export value at $20.5 billion.

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