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