Farmers across the U.S. are prepping for planting season, amid concerns about how the Covid-19 pandemic could disrupt the supply chain, lead to labor shortages and influence price manipulation.
Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, raised these concerns in a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Wednesday. The letter discussed the need for farm laborers, as the State Department is not processing any non-emergency visas and the unique markets farmers are facing during the outbreak.
First reported in December, there are now just over 229,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus worldwide as of Thursday morning – including more than 10,700 cases in the U.S. according to data collected by John Hopkins University.
Since the highly-infectious respiratory illness was declared a worldwide pandemic on March 11, U.S. federal and state officials have made moves to limit its spread, including closing down schools, restaurants and bars, cancelling large events and encouraging people to practice ‘social distancing’ by keeping at least 6-feet away from others.
Duvall wrote that social distancing could have a “significant impact on the processing plants that drive America’s supply chain.” These include meat packing plants, dairy processors, ethanol plants and others. He also raised concerns about farmers’ access to seed, fertilizer and chemicals.
For now, even as grocery shelves empty across the United States amidst the coronavirus pandemic, food suppliers and retailers have promised there is plenty of food in reserve.
The nation’s largest agriculture companies said they continue to conduct business in order to make sure the ingredients, animal feed and food that people need is able to be delivered.
Grain traders and food processors
“Right now, we are confident in the security and sustainability of the US food system. To date, we have been able to fulfill all food manufacturer, retail and food service customer orders,” said April Nelson, a spokeswoman for Cargill, in a statement.
Cargill, the largest privately held company in the U.S., purchases and distributes grain and helps produce food ingredients, such as vegetable oils, that are then used by food companies to make food for the consumer.
So far, there has been little disruption in the supply chain, Nelson said.
“Fortunately, disruption in our global supply chain has been limited, as our hard-working employees continue to operate safely in our facilities,” she said.
Archer Daniels Midland, another of the largest grain traders and food processors in the world, is restricting all non-critical business travel and allowing employees to work from home, based on their location and situation, said spokeswoman Jackie Anderson in an email.
“We have business continuity plans in place for various scenarios and are prepared to respond if we see potential impacts on our business operations,” Anderson said.
The company, which is also among the largest ethanol producers, listed disruptions to the supply chain as a company risk in its annual report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission last month.
Louis Dreyfus and Bunge, the two other largest grain traders, did not respond to a request for comment.
Seed, crop protection companies
Farmers will still be able to get their seeds, said Bayer spokeswoman Susan Luke.
“For our product supply, R&D and seed production sites, we have staffing plans in place to maintain plant and facility operations in order to provide our grower-customers and the professionals who serve them with the products and services they depend on,” Luke said in an emailed statement.
Bayer has asked its employees to work from home when possible,including at its headquarters.
“But our business operations are continuing uninterrupted. Of course, we continue to watch this situation very closely, and are working with local, state and national health officials as we learn more every day about Covid-19,” Luke said.
Together, Bayer and Coretva Agriscience, which is made up of the former Dow/DuPont companies, together sell more than 50 percent of the seeds farmers grow across the world.
“Corteva has a dedicated team closely monitoring the global impacts of Covid-19,” said spokesman Gregg Schmidt. “In addition to the actions we are taking to inform and protect our employees, we will make any necessary adjustments to maintain business continuity and continuously support our customers.”
Swiss-based Syngenta, which is the third largest seed company, did not respond to a request for comment.
This article first appeared in Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting