Modern production and distribution systems, while highly efficient, are frighteningly vulnerable to disruptions. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. has begun shoring up some of its supply chains to be better prepared for future disasters. Unfortunately, we have yet to make the necessary plans to ensure adequate food supplies in the event of future pandemics. With experts warning that even more severe pandemics are possible, the U.S. needs plans in place to protect food supplies during future outbreaks.
A report commissioned by Biden’s Executive Order 14017 identified six priority threats to food supplies: concentrations in food supply chains, labor needs, climate and pestilence-related risks to crop production, animal diseases, transportation bottlenecks, and trade disruptions. Critically missing was the impact of future human disease outbreaks.
The COVID-19 pandemic illustrated that human disease outbreaks threaten our modern food system in unique ways. Just as the threat of emerging infectious diseases, and indeed even specific concerns about coronaviruses, were foreseen prior to COVID-19, the risk that pandemics pose to food supplies has been the subject of multiple reports on the security of U.S. critical infrastructure. A 2003 Homeland Security Presidential Directive (HSPD-7) instructed NISAC to prepare a report on the impact that an influenza pandemic would have on 16 critical infrastructure sectors, including food and agriculture. Subsequent efforts to secure the nation’s resilience to disruptions, such as the 2011 Presidential Policy Directive (PPD-8) on national preparedness, resulted in further reports on risks to U.S. food supplies. However, the only plan put forward in these reports to address risks in the food and agriculture sector from viral outbreaks is to designate tiered priorities among critical workers for receiving vaccines, neglecting many other challenges.
The United States should prepare for future pandemics by establishing continuity of operations and contingency plans in key areas where COVID-19 has highlighted weaknesses and vulnerabilities:
- Agrochemical and energy inputs to farming
- Farm labor supply
- Food transportation
- Food processing
- Food waste
- Food use efficiency
The U.S. is fortunate to have a robust agricultural base; while food insecurity did increase during the pandemic and there were disruptions to the abundant food supplies that Americans have come to rely on, the country weathered the pandemic without major food shortages. However, increasing reliance on just-in-time delivery systems in the food and agriculture sector, the vulnerability of critical parts of the supply chain to worker absenteeism, and the dependence of food supplies on other vulnerable sectors such as transportation and energy mean that future diseases may threaten genuine food shortages.
Agrochemical and energy inputs to farming
Modern agriculture owes its high yields to the significant application of fertilizers and pesticides, known as agrochemicals. It’s also highly mechanized, relying on secure energy supplies to maintain the operation of farm equipment. Nearly sixty percent of U.S. agricultural gross production comes from intermediate inputs such as energy and agrochemicals, much of which is imported. In the first few months of the pandemic, U.S. agrochemical prices spiked 30-35%. An analysis of stock prices in different industries of the food and agriculture sector found that out of all subsectors, the agrochemical industry experienced the greatest financial volatility at the onset of the pandemic. In several countries, shortages of fertilizer and pesticides resulted in lower yields than normal.
In 2022, continued COVID-related disruptions have combined with Russian sanctions in the past few months to drive fertilizer prices to nearly three times higher than pre-pandemic levels. Sanctions on Russian fertilizer exports have revealed how dependent the U.S. is on foreign agrochemical supplies. America now sources about a third of its nitrogen and phosphate fertilizer, as well as 85% of its potash (potassium) supply, from abroad. Given the impact that COVID-19 travel restrictions and other containment measures had on international agrochemical trade, such dependencies could threaten the productivity of American agriculture in future pandemics.
The USDA plans to tap $500 million from a fund set aside for market emergencies to help diversify the fertilizer industry and increase U.S. independence. This will help alleviate potential international trade difficulties during future pandemics. But existing infrastructure deficits that hinder the domestic agrochemical industry should also be addressed. The next pandemic may cause reduced production capacity due to worker shortages or public health restrictions, as happened in China. Major agrochemical plants should be encouraged to develop continuity of operations plans to weather worker shortages, and the federal government may consider investing in a stockpile of fertilizers that could both help stabilize prices and insure production shortfalls.
Many parts of the food supply chain are also heavily dependent on fuel and electricity supplies. As a net petroleum exporter, America’s fuel supplies are less vulnerable to international trade disruptions than other inputs to the food supply chain. However, the fuel still needs to make it to the farm. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated preexisting commercial driver shortages, and nearly 40% of U.S. fuel oil transportation depends on trucks. Future pandemics may impair fuel provision, which would hamper the operation of farm equipment and challenge food transportation operations.
Many parts of the energy sector have prepared for workforce disruptions such as those caused by pandemics. The U.S. power grid was stressed by rapid shifts in electrical demand during the pandemic but did not suffer from major failures. This success was due in part to the energy industry’s history of practicing and planning for such contingencies. In future pandemics, particularly in more severe scenarios, crucial workers may be lost due to illness or death, imperiling energy supplies. A study on interdependencies in U.S. critical infrastructure found that of all sectors, food and agriculture are most tightly linked to energy owing to the reliance on timely transportation, the operation of processing facilities, and the need for cold storage. In New York during the height of the pandemic, some workers critical to the state’s power grid were provided makeshift living facilities at their worksite to minimize their risk of infection. These preparations may have been overkill for COVID-19, but, given Americans’ dependence on basic utilities and the potential severity of future pandemics, these plans were worth having.
In preparation for a future extreme pandemic, other regional utility providers should consider similar provisions. Some do have emergency plans: a few municipal water providers have had emergency supplies stockpiled for over a decade. Many water facilities also have backup generators and contingency plans. Major food processing plants and storage facilities should be outfitted with backup generators as part of the USDA’s $4 billion investment to increase the resilience of food systems.
Farm labor supply
Modern U.S. farming has become significantly less labor intensive than systems in developing countries, but field workers still play a critical role in U.S. food production and their protection needs to be prioritized. In California, farm workers faced four times the risk of COVID-19 infection as the general population, owing to factors including crowded living and transportation facilities. Roughly half of hired farm workers lack legal documentation, reducing their access to worker protection and healthcare. The Farm Worker Modernization Act of 2021 provides a legal path to citizenship for migrant workers, which may alleviate some of these issues during future outbreaks. However, early in the pandemic, all routine visa appointments at U.S. embassies were halted, stopping the mandatory interview process for workers on H-2A temporary agricultural visas and freezing them out of the system. While the State Department eventually issued exceptions to the interview requirement and DHS later added flexibility to various deadlines associated with the program, farmers still faced difficulties hiring foreign workers.
To mitigate risks to farm production in future pandemics, the relevant federal departments should coordinate to create a plan to adjust the H-2A program during health emergencies. Several major outbreaks of COVID-19 among farm laborers highlight the importance of providing safe working, transportation, and living conditions for these critical workers. To reduce labor loss risks in a future pandemic, farms with large numbers of hired workers could be provided with PPE, additional temporary housing facilities, and vehicles for transportation, such as public transit vehicles that would not be in use under lockdown measures.
The U.S. only suffered a four percent reduction in farm worker hours during 2020, and with advanced planning, the next pandemic can likely be weathered without significant labor losses. However, the experience of West Africa during the 2014-2016 Ebola epidemic should be a cautionary tale of the ability of epidemics to drive absenteeism. Even though farmers were at relatively low risk of infection, several countries experienced significant declines in available workers as people were afraid to enter affected areas, contributing to a roughly 10% reduction in rice production in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Secure food supplies depend on an informed and healthy workforce, able to move and work safely.
Most Americans live far from the farms that provide their food. Even if agricultural production is secure, consumers may face shortages if food transportation is disrupted. Driver shortages and supply chain disruptions caused a 20% decline in the amount of goods transported by trucks in the early stages of the pandemic, and 75% of U.S. agricultural goods are transported by truck. Therefore transportation could prove to be a major bottleneck in food provision in a future pandemic. Modeling of the U.S. food system’s vulnerability to labor losses shows that transportation is the most vulnerable leg of the food supply chain. Since grocery stores and their warehouses have around five days worth of supplies, delays in food distribution could quickly cause shortages.
Many months into the pandemic, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration eased transportation pressure on the food industry by waiving various regulations. This helped alleviate the supply shortages by giving trucking companies greater flexibility in extending commercial drivers licenses, and by deploying workers who just had driving permits, increasing the number of potential drivers. Similarly, limits on workers’ hours were also changed.
While extended hours helped address transportation shortfalls, they also exacerbated driver frustrations with challenging working conditions. Some companies offered bonuses to help retain workers, but with the pandemic increasing operational costs, not all companies were able to do so. In the future, the federal government should consider providing funds to help maintain a transportation workforce.
Throughout the pandemic, the National Guard has assisted with various logistical challenges, including food relief services, and the Biden administration considered deploying the Guard to help alleviate truck driver shortages. In the midst of a health emergency, delays in response times can have grave consequences. To prepare for future disease outbreaks, regulations around licensure that would limit the Guard’s ability to assist in fulfilling truck driver demand should be identified so they can be quickly waived. Federal and state governments should plan for how to deploy service members in transportation emergencies immediately in response to a severe public health crisis. The Department of Transportation (DoT) should also designate essential food and agriculture materials as priorities in order to optimize limited transportation capacity in the event of a severe transportation crisis. Since agricultural products and prepared foodstuff make up only about 12.5% of the 12 billion pounds of goods transported by trucks in the U.S. each year, there may be significant amounts of spare capacity to maintain food supplies even in a driver shortage.
Previous plans for safeguarding the transportation sector need to be updated. In a 2007 report, the DoT identified hundreds of thousands of workers vital to the nation’s transportation sector, placing them on a priority list for vaccinations in the event of a pandemic. When COVID-19 struck, this list was out of date and needed to be updated on the spot. Inventories of transportation workers should be updated regularly to reflect the modern industry. Other options for reducing the risk of infection faced by the critical workers in future pandemics, such as providing PPE or living supplies to help them better isolate, should also be considered.
High-density processing facilities
Closures of high worker-density food facilities, such as meat processing and packing plants, which were necessary to contain outbreaks, were a highly publicized breakdown in our food systems during the pandemic. The impact of COVID-19 infections on plant closures and a subsequent drop in meat processing capacity is a stark illustration of the dangers of relying on high worker density facilities in a viral pandemic. By June 2020, roughly 3,000 meat packing workers had been infected, or about 3.5% of the total U.S. meat processing workforce, compared to less than half a percent of the general U.S. population. Concerns about the outbreak caused the temporary closure of 30 meat processing plants, affecting 45,000 workers, or over half of the country’s meat packers, leading to a 40% decline in meat production relative to the previous year. Thus the high-density working conditions in these facilities meant that necessary public health containment measures amplified a relatively small perturbation (3.5% of workers infected) into a major disruption (40% decrease in production).
The concentration of U.S. meat processing in only a few massive facilities amplified the impact of worker shortages. Recognizing this, the Biden administration issued Executive Order 14036 on promoting economic competitiveness, leading to the USDA’s plan to decrease concentration in the meat and poultry processing industries by investing $200 million to assist the building of new slaughter and packing facilities. This will help decorrelate the risks of closure between different facilities in future disease outbreaks, but there remain many vulnerabilities in the American meat and poultry supply. In 2018, 2.5 billion pounds of meat were held in cold storage in the US, occupying roughly 85% of storage capacity and about ten days worth of supplies, given that the U.S. consumes 87.5 billion pounds of meat each year. Since meat and poultry constitute about one-sixth of Americans’ caloric intake, having only ten days’ worth of supplies of stored meat means that disruptions could quickly pose a serious challenge to providing adequate food intake.
Even temporary disruptions to one component of the meat supply chain can severely impact total output. Farmers who lack a buyer for their livestock at the time that they are ready for slaughter may not be able to continue to maintain them because they are too large for their holding sites or because continuing to feed them is not financially feasible. Farmers may resort to culling their herds or flocks. When processing capacity is limited, one tactic that farmers can employ to minimize waste is to change the diet that they feed their livestock, such as increasing the fiber content, to slow down the animals’ growth so they do not reach slaughter before there is the chance to process them. This was used by some producers during the COVID-19 pandemic, although only after the industry suffered the initial supply chain shock. The USDA should prepare resources to advise farmers on such practices so that they can be implemented quickly at the onset of a future pandemic or other event that may reduce processing capacity. Similarly, guidance should be issued on keeping feeder cattle on pastures for longer, and therefore delaying their development, as is done in response to higher grain prices. If implemented promptly following a shock to meat supply chains, these actions could help reduce waste and smooth supplies. Part of the culling during the COVID-19 pandemic was also due to farmers being unable to secure feed for their livestock, adding to the number of animals that could have been slaughtered had there been sufficient capacity to process them.
Some of this culling may be avoidable in future pandemics by increasing processing rates. To make up for lost capacity, early in the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak the federal government relaxed rules limiting the speed of livestock slaughter. In order to manage a rapid ramp-up in processing and limit cullings, there would have to be sufficient storage to absorb additional meat and poultry, given that total storage has been near capacity in recent years. Thus, the USDA should consider encouraging the construction of more cold storage facilities to provide a buffer of meat supplies during disruptions.
High worker density processing could be made more resilient to disease outbreaks by ensuring that employees have ready access to PPE, and potentially to well-stocked onsite living facilities, as discussed above for utility companies. In the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, the USDA provided hundreds of millions of dollars in relief to meat and poultry producers. In a future public health crisis, funds should be specifically allocated for increasing worker benefits, especially for any who agree to sequester on site, to stave off absenteeism. In a severe pandemic, losing certain critical employees who perform hard-to-replace functions could have an outsized impact on the total output of a plant. Some prioritized and critical workers identified in a 2007 report by NISAC are supervisory personnel required to be onsite at a range of food processing plants by state or federal law. In a severe pandemic, regulators should consider waiving such rules so that only workers critical to food production are on site, both to minimize transmission risks and to ensure that their absence, due to illness or fear, does not impair operations.
Even with well-executed safety and resilience policies, a future pandemic may still lead to the closure of food processing facilities. One option for mitigating the effects of such closures is to quickly expand the number of facilities that are able to process meat and poultry by granting expedited licenses to people and companies able to butcher animals. The plan to increase the USDA’s awareness of under-covered markets, as proposed in a new agriculture and food supply chain assessment document put out by the agency, could facilitate this move. Safeguarding workers, decreasing the concentration of the food processing industry, expediting regulatory waivers to increase processing capacity, adapting livestock rearing practices to smooth supply, and developing plans to quickly license additional processors may help maintain meat supplies in the face of future pandemics.
Minimizing pandemic-induced food waste
The USDA estimates that 31% of American calories are consumed away from home. Due to lockdown requirements at the onset of the pandemic, the amount of food eaten at restaurants declined starkly, and demand for food from grocery stores spiked. Food destined for restaurants is packaged, labeled, and regulated differently, hampering food providers’ ability to quickly redirect goods to grocery stores. In response to this, the FDA eventually modified labeling rules to allow bulk foodstuffs that would not be labeled for restaurants to be sold in grocery stores, and similarly changed egg safety regulations to allow eggs destined for commercial processors to be sold directly to consumers. Despite such efforts, there was still a large increase in food waste, stemming from an inability to quickly adjust to changes in the supply chain. The FDA should review rules and regulations that reduced producers’ flexibility to change who they sold their goods to, and prepare plans to waive or modify these at the onset of a pandemic. The agency should collaborate with industry groups to ensure that different actors are aware of how such changes will affect their capacity to adapt to future shocks.
Producers also struggled to quickly find new buyers once their normal restaurant customers were no longer operational, leading to increased waste. More than five percent of eggs and milk produced in the U.S. were dumped by producers, reducing food availability and creating environmental concerns. In a severe future pandemic, sudden worker absenteeism could force both restaurants and grocery stores to close, limiting food producers’ ability to find suitable customers in time, due to limited storage capacity and biological constraints such as the need to milk dairy cows. Even if sufficient food is being produced, it may be wasted in such quantities as to limit food supplies. To prevent this, the USDA should consider buying food. This would not only reduce waste, but also ensure that producers have a sufficient incentive to continue producing food at a normal level amidst the uncertainty of a severe pandemic. Executive Order 13603 authorizes the President to delegate authority during a national emergency to the heads of six agencies (Agriculture, Defense, Energy, HHS, Transportation, Commerce) to claim priority in procuring materials and resources critical to public interest, and so would allow the USDA to buy food during a future pandemic. The order outlines various financial incentive mechanisms for securing resources, and was used starting in March 2020 to secure pandemic supplies.
Given FEMA’s role during the COVID-19 pandemic in providing food for people who were otherwise unable to access it due to financial pressures and mobility restrictions, the agency should be prepared to establish emergency food distribution centers if grocery stores are shuttered. These facilities would ideally be outdoors and low contact to minimize disease spread. Just as the National Guard was deployed to assist with food distribution during the COVID-19 pandemic, it may also be important for manning these centers.
Efficient food use
The staple crops — corn, soy, and wheat — take up roughly ninety percent of farmed acreage in America and are the foundation of the U.S. food system. Before the beginning of a new harvest, the amount of corn, soy, and wheat stored in the U.S. as a percentage of the amount used throughout the year, a number known as the ending stock to use ratio, has averaged 13%, 8%, and 36%, respectively, over the last two decades. Therefore, the U.S. has between one and four-and-a-half months worth of these three staple crops. If crop production was seriously threatened in a future pandemic, due to a loss of key inputs or farm labor, these stock levels provide little runway for the U.S. population to rely on stored food, assuming that crops are allocated as normal. However, normal allocation is not efficient at delivering calories from crops to food directly available for consumers and should be changed if there is a severe threat to food production.
In the U.S., large amounts of crops are used for industry rather than food, or inefficiently directed toward animal agriculture. Around 45% of U.S. corn, soy and wheat is fed to animals. However, livestock are inefficient at converting feed into human-edible calories with the efficiency ratio ranging from 3% for beef to 12% for chicken. The amount of food fed to animals each year in the U.S. is enough, if given directly to humans, to feed one billion people. A further 32% of the calories from the three major staple crops grown in the U.S. are used to make biofuels (biodiesel from soy and bioethanol from corn) or other industrial products rather than going to food. The total amount of corn, soy, and wheat stored in the U.S. before a new harvest is sufficient to feed every American for more than a year and a half, and up to five years right after harvest. Despite this seeming abundance, the use of these staple crops for animal feed, biofuels, and industrial applications, as well as high levels of waste and significant exports, means that maintaining typical allocation patterns gives little buffer in the event of a severe production shock. However, the USDA and other federal agencies could plan to help redirect stored food in such a scenario in order to more efficiently use grain and oilseed stocks to provide food directly to consumers.
The past two decades have seen a surge in the use of U.S. crops for non-food purposes. Starting with the 2005 Energy Policy Act, a bipartisan amendment to the 1970 Clean Air Act, the U.S. has required that biofuels be blended with transportation fuels. Now, almost all U.S. gasoline is blended with ethanol at a 10% rate, creating E10 gas. Second generation biofuels that use inedible crop residue or non-food crops are still in the relatively early stages of development, so most biofuels today are made from human edible crops and therefore compete with food (blending mandates have exacerbated past food crises by contributing to higher prices). During a crisis threatening food production, food prices would increase substantially. In this scenario, easing blending mandates may free up crops that would otherwise be used for fuel production to be available for consumption. This is especially true in a pandemic, where decreases in transportation demand would likely lead to lower gasoline prices, as occurred at the onset of COVID-19, and so the price of food relative to fuel would increase substantially.
In addition to waiving blending requirements in response to a food production shock, another policy to allow biofuel production to be more responsive to food and fuel prices is to stretch requirements over the course of five years, rather than one, so that refiners can be more flexible with the amount of biofuels that they blend into transportation fuels. This could be achieved by extending the duration of Renewable Identification Numbers (RINs), the tradable credit that gas suppliers have to provide the EPA to comply with biofuel mandates, from 18 months to several years. With this policy change, companies could more flexibly vary the amount of biofuels that they use in a given year in response to market pressures and the price of biofuel feedstocks.
Modern food systems are extremely intricate, interdependent on other critical sectors, and rely on many human, capital, energy, and material inputs. Epidemics and pandemics that limit worker availability and the movement of goods and people disrupt every part of the food supply chain, from production to processing to distribution. Pandemics have long been recognized as requiring an “all-of-nation” response, with coordination between many different federal, state and local agencies and many different actors in the private sector. To achieve this coordination in the face of pandemics dangerous enough to cripple the food supply chain, we will need comprehensive continuity of operations and contingency plans for scenarios of varying severity. Given the interdependence between different parts of the food system and other sectors, to design adequate preparations, food processors, for example, must understand and incorporate the emergency plans of the transportation system. Therefore, the federal government should commission the creation of a comprehensive plan that integrates policies to address foreseeable challenges in food production, transportation, processing, and retail due to labor, energy, and material constraints and regulatory barriers to shifting supply chains. This plan should address all components of the agri-food supply chain and include the following key elements:
- Agrochemical and energy inputs to farming
- Fertilizers production plants and energy utility centers should have continuity of operations plans for worker shortages
- These plans should be tested in non-emergency times
- Facilities should consider maintaining supplies to support workers on site in emergencies
- The USDA should invest in reshoring agrochemical production, particularly nitrogen fertilizer
- Farm labor supply
- The State Department and DHS should have plans to adjust H-2A visa requirements in response to a pandemic
- This plan should include waiving interview requirements and increasing deadline flexibility
- Farms should have PPE readily available for workers
- The USDA should coordinate with farmers that have high worker densities to secure additional mobile living and traveling facilities to help de-densify laborers
- Food transportation
- The Department of Transportation should coordinate with states to ease regulations that could limit the truck driver workforce in a pandemic
- The DoT should create a plan to waive or modify these requirements
- The DoT should prepare to provide funding to help companies maintain their transportation workforce and reduce absenteeism
- The DoT should prioritize goods to make the most of limited transportation capacity during a pandemic-induced worker shortage
- High-density processing facilities
- States should create plans to waive requirements that supervisory workers be onsite at processing facilities during a pandemic
- Facilities should have PPE readily available to all workers
- Facilities should prepare to have workers remain onsite
- The USDA should provide additional funds to incentivize workers to remain onsite
- The USDA should better identify small-scale processors who could provide additional capacity if large facilities shut down
- Minimizing pandemic-induced food waste
- The USDA should invest in greater cold storage capacity to accommodate larger meat and poultry inventories
- Limits on animal slaughter and processing speeds should be waived during public health emergencies
- The FDA should have plans to quickly waive or modify packaging and labeling rules that limit supply chain flexibility
- The USDA should purchase food from producers who cannot quickly find new buyers, minimizing waste and incentivizing continued production
- Efficient food use
- The USDA should buy human edible livestock feed and make it available for direct consumption in severe scenarios
- The EPA should plan to waive the Renewable Volume Obligation and coordinate with the USDA to make sure that biofuel feedstocks are purchased and directed toward livestock feed or direct human consumption
- FEMA should plan to work with the National Guard to build and staff food distribution centers