The U.S. agriculture industry contributes $1.053 trillion to the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP). Without the agriculture industry, your favorite restaurant or sports bar would not be able to function, which is why it falls under “Ag and Food Sectors” in the U.S. economy. The farming sector alone contributes $132.8 billion, and the combined agriculture sectors contribute to 22 million full and part-time jobs. With the average U.S. household budgeting at least 13% of their yearly income on food alone, it is important to know how the industry has changed due to COVID-19. (USDA, 2018)
The Food and Health Survey from the International Food Information Council noted that 60% of households started cooking more from home, which is why you saw increased lines at the grocery stores and thinned out shelves. However, reports indicate that all sectors saw a sharp decline in spending. Bulk foods make up a large portion of the U.S. market, supplying restaurants, hotels, school cafeterias, and sports centers, and with those sectors mostly non-operational because of COVID-19, food is being tossed away.
The United States is the third-largest consumer of seafood but relies heavily on imports. China, India, and Indonesia are the top producers in this industry and because international trading has come to a halt, so has the transport of seafood. In addition, two-thirds of the fish being caught in U.S. waters were going directly to restaurants and hotels, and it had been reported that some U.S. commercial fisheries will not survive the pandemic. The only increase in aquaculture sales has come from canned tuna and other fish because of their long shelf life.
Out of all the industries in the U.S., poultry has suffered the least. However, the production of poultry meat is down by 15%, and some reports indicated that a single chicken processor is smashing 750,00 unhatched eggs weekly, or 5.5% of its total production. Millions of chickens are also being depopulated because of processing plant closures. President Donald Trump signed an executive order under the Defense Protection Act of 1950 to reopen processing plants to keep up with production and have a steady meat supply. The Department of Agriculture is working with these plants to ensure workers are safe while returning back to work, and the USDA has 491 million pounds of frozen chicken in storage as a safety net for the U.S. market.
Dairy Farmers of America, the nation’s largest Dairy cooperative, is dumping 3.7 million gallons of milk each day, and The International Dairy Foods Association claims 5% of the country’s total milk supply is being dumped across the country. This industry is being hit the hardest because most milk is supplied to restaurants, coffee shops, and cafeterias. Cheese production has increased, but packaging prevents some cheese from seeing retail stores. This is because stores come in varieties of 8, 16, and 32 oz packages, and commercial cheese comes in 20 pound bags. These plants can’t logistically change their production format because they will end up losing more money.
Perfectly ripe vegetables are being plowed all across the United States. One report stated that a single farmer had to dig huge ditches to bury 1 million pounds of onions. Although farmers are donating a lot of their food, charities cannot keep up with the surplus. Fortunately, Kroger has partnered with Sysco and U.S. Foods, leaders in supplying restaurants and institutions, to alleviate some of the stocking pressures these companies face.
As the spread of COVID-19 continues, there is a growing need for the agriculture industry to shift its procedures to save food from being thrown away. Some potential solutions include coating fruit with protective polymers to increase shelf-life, increasing the production of dried meat, and ultra heat-treated milk, and using 3-D printers to provide required spare parts on farms. Some companies are starting to shift to robotics to eliminate the spread of the COVID-19, by minimizing human to human contact. The poultry industry was resistant to introducing soft robotics initially, but with the future being so uncertain, this may be the only option for businesses to continue if lockdowns stay in effect.