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Amidst COVID-19, transportation disruptions pose biggest threat to food supply

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Lindsey Knewstub

As Americans head to their local grocery stores and see shortages on products, concerns are rising about food supply shortages. Cornell University agricultural economist Andrew Novakovic says given the long-standing concern around food safety, agriculture and food businesses have a leg up in the current situation, but labor and transportation disruptions could result in widespread consequences to the food system.

Andrew Novakovic

E. V. Baker Professor of Agricultural Economics Emeritus

“There are several critical control points in a hazard analysis of food availability in a crisis of the COVID-19 magnitude, including agricultural production, food processing, and transportation systems that link farms to processors and processors to the various distributors.

“The good news is that farmers are going to keep producing. Milk, beef and pork production are fairly hard to change. Basic commodities like corn and soybeans, as well as vegetables, rice and wheat, are in or entering their planting seasons and will not be harvested until later in the year, so the implications for them will depend on how long the current restrictions related to social distancing and the economic impacts on household earnings persist. 

“An important aspect of both farming and food processing to keep in mind is the labor force. If farm owners and workers get sick, there could be critical worker shortages. In an instance where a farm’s entire workforce is affected, this could mean irretrievable loss of production. Labor disruptions on the food processing side would be more impactful simply because there are a lot fewer processing plants than there are farmers, so losing a whole plant is a bigger deal than losing a whole farm. Processing plants are more controllable spaces but also closed spaces that probably make ‘social distancing’ a bit more of a challenge.

“Transportation disruptions could quickly scale to an industry problem. For fresh products a transportation delay could result in product spoilage or at least enough of a degradation in quality to have a price effect. I think it’s the transportation system where we are most vulnerable to labor disruptions that have widespread consequence to the food system.

“Overall, I am optimistic that the food industry, beginning with farmers, will rise to this challenge. Given the long-standing concern and emphasis around animal health and food safety, I think agriculture and food businesses have a leg up in doing what is needed now.”

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