COVID-19 is affecting many aspects of the global agricultural system, though the long-term impact is difficult to foretell. While the virus may not have be affecting consumers yet, farmers and workers within the food industry already feel it. Due to the complexity of the sector, it’s difficult to compare the impact of the coronavirus on agricultural activity in more localized economies, such as Ireland, versus globally-dependent countries like the United States.

Photo by Eugene Zhyvchik

Three of the primary areas of impact will include international trade deals, food processing facilities and high-tech developments such as drone usage.

Trade Deals

The most significant impact of the coronavirus on agriculture concerns the new trade deal between China and the United States. The agreement was signed in January of this year and states that China will purchase $40 billion worth of goods in 2020 and 2021. The main exports from the United States to China include poultry, dairy and soybeans.

In the short-term, delayed processing and distribution will have the most impact on agriculture. With much of China still shut down, tankers are waiting in Chinese ports that cannot be unloaded due to the shortage of workers. Commodity grains, however, will likely feel the most economic strain over the next few months. Of all of the soybeans grown in the United States, the country exports more than half of the crop, with China being the largest buyer.

Transport restrictions within various countries will also present an issue. Not only are China’s largest ports currently backlogged with containers of imported fruits, vegetables and meat, but the country is also preventing the transport of feed for livestock farmers. The situation may present problems down the line, with farmers dealing with limited resources and lack of access to necessary supplies.

Food Processing

Food processing facilities, especially meat plants, are most susceptible to infection concerns like COVID-19. With workers dealing with raw meat and in close contact with one another, many operations will experience workers shortages due to quarantine. Suspended production may result in limited availability in some countries, and additional waste due to unused product.

In the United States, transport restrictions on poultry in China have created a surplus market with nowhere to go. Because America uses chlorinated antimicrobial soap on poultry meat, its options for alternative markets are limited. EU regulations, for example, ban the import of poultry washed with chlorine, noting the adverse health effects on consumers. While the Trump administration has worked to persuade the UK to adjust regulations, they have refused to compromise on standards of food safety.

High-Tech Equipment

The use of agricultural drones is relatively limited on a global scale, though more large scale establishments are investing. With the importance of limiting human interaction due to the threat of COVID-19, some farmers are installing drones that can replace labor.

In Chine, the agricultural tech company, XAG, created a supply chain relief initiative to help farmers recover from potential losses or labor shortages. As the leading distributor of agricultural drones, the organization is also involved in spraying disinfectants using the technology.

Utilization of high-tech equipment in the United States, such as drones, may follow a different course, since the restrictions of their implementation is limited internet access. The main reasons for drones on farms include crop spraying and remote livestock reporting, but these pursuits are useless in there is not a reliable source of Wi-Fi.

Photo by David Henrichs

The long-term impact of coronavirus on agriculture

While we have yet to see the long-term impact of the coronavirus on agriculture, its safe to assume the global food supply will feel the toll.  Trade agreements between China and the United States will be tested, as fluctuations in supply and demand continue to adjust. The livestock industry may suffer significant losses with labor shortages at food processing plants, especially those handling raw meat. Plus, restrictions on human contact may lead to increased use of high-tech equipment.

Regardless of the future toll of COVID-19 on agriculture, the current impact tests the resilience of our globalizes food trade. In an economic system with a complicated interdependence, the virus may leave a permanent mark on how countries assess self-sustainability in the long-term.

To ensure consistency during turbulent times, farmers will need to evaluate objective data to ensure they’re producing at a scale that’s sustainable. Agriculture is teeming with uncontrollable variables, such as weather, but with high-tech equipment and software, farmers may be able to lessen the blow of the coronavirus.