COVID-19 Pandemic and Seasonal Farm Laborers: An Early Discussion

by CPT Gustavo Ferreira, MAJ Jamie Critelli, MAJ Wayne Johnson, and

COL Gita Velu

Photo courtesy of USAID, Historical Archive, farmer in the Philippines working with his cattle.


A growing number of countries are imposing mandatory lockdowns and unprecedented restrictions to public movements to curb the spread of COVID-19. As governments battle this health crisis and attempt to mitigate its economic shockwaves, a serious problem has emerged: farm labor shortages disrupting the global food supply chain.

In the short-term, labor shortages hinder time sensitive activities such as planting, harvests, livestock management, and fishing. Aftershocks include food scarcity, poorer diets, depleted global food stocks, wasted harvests, and pricing volatility and inflation. Income lost for producers and migrant workers remitting earnings home may slow the local economies that would have otherwise received them. This may generate waves of economic and social instability in vulnerable populations in areas of importance to Geographic Combatant Commands, such as the Horn of Africa which also recently suffered a locust outbreak. One only needs to revisit the aftermath of onion price increases in India to understand the potential repercussions of society not being able to provide stable staple food prices for its most disadvantaged citizens. Inability to manage onion prices in India led to an overthrow of the central government in 1980, state governments in 1998, and civic unrest in 2010, 2015 and 2019. (Los Angeles Times, 2010). Crop failures and bread shortages helped spark the French Revolution in the late 1700s (Smithsonian, 2010). In ancient Rome, grain shortfalls resulted in riots and civil unrest (Urbanus, 2017). Similarly, governments may struggle to develop effective and timely policies that address the complex and rapidly evolving economic challenges generated by the ongoing pandemic.

In the long-term, current farm labor shortages may cause enduring harm by permanently closing down producers that cannot survive a temporary revenue loss. Additionally, while the pandemic is an impetus for producers to increase mechanization and reduce reliance on seasonal labor, this will generate effects on agricultural labor markets that could reverberate long after the crisis has abated. Such effects may spill over across other sectors of society. For example, a reduction in agricultural jobs could increase rural unemployment, urban migration, and the population of jobless young men at risk for crime and extremism. While the long-term effects of the immediate labor shortages are difficult to project, it is likely that instability will increase in the most severely affected areas.

Impacts to the Population and Agricultural Sector

According to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), the ongoing pandemic could have impacts on both food supply and demand. Despite some developing challenges in the global food supply chains, FAO remains cautiously optimistic about the outlook for major staple crops in 2020. The FAO does not anticipate sudden price increases for major staples because of existing levels of global stocks and the higher capital-intensity of the production of these crops. In contrast, surges in prices are more likely for high-value and perishable products such as produce, meats, and fish products – it is important to note that some of that inflation may be offset by sudden decreases in demand for those products (FAO, 2020).

Despite the cautious optimism expressed by experts, the situation could change due to border closures, quarantines, and market, supply chain and trade disruptions. As a cautionary tale, quarantines and widespread panic during the Ebola Virus Disease outbreak in Sierra Leone (2014-2016) worsened food insecurity in that country. Under the current circumstances, farmers are uncertain whether they can harvest or sell their crops. In developing countries, the closures of rural markets will likely disrupt the entire supply chain because they tend to be important waystations to urban markets.

In industrialized economies, with efficient and well-established food supply chains, logistical bottlenecks may bar farmer and food processor access to final markets. In addition, country-wide closures of restaurants and tourist venues coupled with diminishing and less frequent grocery shopping will likely reduce the demand for fresh produce and fisheries products while buttressing sales of more processed foods. Suspension of school meal programs around the world will also impact millions of consumers and food producers. Moreover, livestock production could be interrupted as access to animal feed dwindles and slaughters houses are forced to diminish capacity as a result of logistical constraints and labor shortages. Due to the growing number of workers infected with COVID-19, the world’s biggest pork producer just closed a major U.S. pork-processing facility indefinitely. Because the plant accounts for up to 5 percent of U.S. pork production, its closure will likely have a visible impact on the market (Bloomberg, 2020).

The main concern areas include countries more severely impacted by the virus and regions with already high levels of food insecurity - according to FAO, there are near 820 million people around the world experiencing chronic hunger. An example of a region that is particularly vulnerable right now is the Horn of Africa which was recently impacted by a Desert Locust outbreak (Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit for Somalia, 2020). Countries that rely heavily on food imports (e.g. small islands categorized as developing economies) and States highly reliable on oil exports (e.g. Venezuela) represent other regions at risk (FAO, 2020).

Farm gate and beyond

Food producers are also likely to face challenges procuring non-labor agricultural inputs such as seeds or fertilizers. As an illustrative example, the Hubei province in China was not only where the coronavirus pandemic originated, but it is also the country’s largest producer of agricultural fertilizers. The outbreak and the resulting travel restrictions disrupted production from local factories. Farmers in other Chinese provinces are already dealing with fertilizer shortages and are concerned about their crop production levels this season (Financial Times, 2020).

In the early stages of this outbreak, food supply chains began showing some signs of stress due to surges in demand for some products and growing operational constraints (e.g. restrictions to movement or lack of workers). Logistical bottlenecks in food supply chains can be particularly damaging for fresh produce and fish or seafood products due to their high perishability. As the pandemic continues to unfold, decreases in agricultural output this crop season could also exacerbate food inflation. This is an important aspect for various U.S. Geographic Combatant Commands because increases in prices of staple foods will erode economic well-being and food security levels of poor and vulnerable populations that allocate a large portion of their budgets to food purchases (Mellor, 2017).

At the country level, consumers in developed economies spend a much lower share of their household income on food products compared to the populations in developing nations. For instance, in the U.S., consumers allocate 6.4 percent of their household income for food purchases. In contrast, on average, Nigerians spend nearly 56 percent of their income on food (World Economic Forum, 2016). Furthermore, restrictions to movement of farm workers due to COVID-19 could result in sharp and sudden falls in income for the families relying on this seasonal migration. To cope with an economic shock, people may resort to poorer, less diverse diets or to selling productive assets (e.g. livestock, farm equipment, etc.) which in turn will impact future income generating activities (FAO, 2020; Mellor, 2017). Combined, these events could have serious destabilizing effects in rural areas of many developing countries. Furthermore, U.S. military leadership must assess the likelihood these scenarios would create prime opportunities for our near peer competitors to assert control in these regions.

Farm labor shortages due to restriction of movement - either mandated by authorities, or as result of behavior change by farm workers

While there are multiple channels through which the COVID-19 outbreak could impact global food supply chains, this article emphasizes how potentially disruptive farm labor shortages may affect food production this year.

Every year, millions of people temporarily migrate from poorer nations to wealthier economies to support agricultural operations such as crop harvest and food processing. However, voluntary or mandated restrictions of movement following the COVID-19 outbreak are disrupting this seasonal migration and preventing farmers from harvesting crops and caring for their livestock, fishermen from catching fish and collecting seafood products, and processors from preparing food products for final consumption. In the worst-case scenario, this could lead to significant decreases in agricultural production this year.

The Chinese agricultural sector is heavily dependent on migrant workers. With China being the epicenter of this pandemic, there are reports that farms in that country are struggling to hire enough laborers due to movement restrictions and suspension of public transportation following the outbreak of COVID-19 (Financial Times, 2020). Another case is the large labor requirements of the French agricultural sector. Every year, French farmers need nearly 800,000 temporary workers to harvest fruits and vegetables. Most of those laborers come from Morocco, Tunisia and eastern Europe (Financial Times, 2020). In India and Kenya, lockdowns are already impacting tea supplies. This is because tea leaves that normally command premium prices in global markets are not being plucked and became too long and hard to harvest. It is estimated that 10 percent of India’s tea production for this year is already lost due to this issue (Financial Times, 2020).

In the United States, the ongoing pandemic will only exacerbate an already perennial issue faced by labor-intensive farming operations such as produce farms, dairy farms, ranches, and nurseries. The U.S. Department of Agriculture had already identified a long-term decline in the number of people from rural Mexico choosing to work in U.S. agriculture (USDA-ERS, 2018). Examples of these recurrent and ubiquitous labor needs by U.S. agriculture include the tomato harvest in Florida, fruit and vegetable picking in California, meat packing in the mid-west, oyster processing in the Chesapeake Bay and crawfish processing in Louisiana. Under the current circumstances, travel restrictions or changes in behavior may impact the official guest-worker program that allows U.S. farmers to temporally hire workers from Mexico and Central America during crop harvest season through the H2-A visa program. This program allows U.S. farmers to bring non-U.S. workers to the United States to perform seasonal farm labor for a period of up to 10 months. Despite this legal framework, it was estimated that in 2014-16, 48 percent of hired crop farm laborers were not legally authorized to work in the United States (USDA-ERS, 2020).

Another important dimension of this issue is that farm workers represent a health and medical risk group. During planting and harvesting season, seasonal farm laborers often live, work and travel in crowded conditions, and generally lack access to health care services, health insurance, and paid sick leave. In addition, undocumented farm workers may not reach out for medical care due to fearing deportation or job loss.

All of these factors could be conducive to a rapid spread of COVID-19 amongst farmworker communities which could put the nation's food supply at risk.

Employers of farm laborers are trying strike the difficult balance of keeping production going while keeping workers safe. This includes scaling back the number of workers on transportation buses, enhanced spacing between workers at fields during harvest, educating workers about the risks of COVID-19, and the placement of hand-washing stations. There are also reporting of workers bringing their own cleaning supplies and improvised personal protective equipment (CNN, 2020).

Concluding discussions

As this crisis continues to evolve, governments and industries are developing different approaches to mitigate the impacts that farm labor shortages may have on food production. The actions range from deregulation, or even reversal of policies in place, to the creation of new incentives in labor markets.

In the United States, the federal government categorized farm workers as “essential” and critical to the food supply chain and relaxed some information requirements in the H2A visa application process. In Germany, government authorities lifted a ban on seasonal farm laborers and are allowing up to 80,000 people to enter the country and work in German farms (New York Times, 2020; Financial Times, 2020). Despite these efforts, many migrants who are weighing the health risks against the loss of income may opt to stay in their respective countries.

As many economic sectors shut down, some European governments are attempting to develop programs to employ a growing pool of unemployed citizens in the agricultural sector. Nevertheless, such policies are generating mixed results because retention is likely to be low due to the extraneous nature of farm work. Furthermore, training a productive farm laborer takes years and proper transfer of knowledge (e.g. hand-picking tomatoes requires a specific, tacit expertise to identify the fruit that is ripe and ready for the retail market). In response to this, farmers may opt to switch to less labor-intensive crops or improve technologies to reduce labor requirements. However, such changes will also take time and for some farmers it may be too late this season because they had already bought specific inputs (e.g. seeds), or began the planting of crops prior to the outbreak. In addition, farmers may see reductions in their income because crops requiring less labor are often sold at lower prices and adoption of new of technologies will almost certainly come with higher production costs.

Some pundits may advocate for an increased mechanization of agriculture to reduce dependency on farm labor. This is a much broader and more complex issue that goes beyond the scope of this discussion. However, it is important to recognize that crops such as fruits and vegetables continue to be harvested by hand in many operations to avoid bruising, which guarantees access to fresh markets –bruised or damaged produce is often sold for processing at lower prices.

The COVID-19 outbreak underscores the critical role seasonal farm workers play every year in the global food production system. New steps should be taken to protect this essential and equally vulnerable segment of the population and to prepare the system for any future pandemic event. Perhaps robotics and artificial intelligence could be developed in the long term to ensure future food supplies. As farmers and governments continue to develop solutions to prevent major disruptions to agricultural production, this crisis presents a unique opportunity for the U.S. Army leadership to incorporate new strategies that may detect and mitigate this risk as part of future planning considerations. An example of such strategies would be increased monitoring and reporting by Civil Affair teams of conditions of local food supply chains, food security levels, and migration flows by regional c