COVID-19 has turned our world upside down in so many ways, and the food supply chain is no exception. Whether consumers prefer fast or slow food, meat-based or vegan, local or imported, organic or conventional, supermarkets or farmers' markets, every aspect of our food supply chain, from farm to fork, has been affected by this scourge.
The recent, rampant outbreaks of COVID-19 among meat-processing workers – over the past month or so, the number of infections tied to three of the country's biggest meat processors (Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods, and JBS) has jumped from a bit over 3,000 to more than 11,000 – are just one sobering example of the vulnerabilities in what we thought was our secure, efficient food supply chain.
The physical proximity necessary for these workers and the contained, refrigerated environment of meat-packing plants is a setup for COVID-19 transmission. Infection rates quickly reached 50% and facility closures have disrupted our meat supply, resulting in shortages and higher prices.
As that catastrophe unfolded, another began. Outbreaks of infections are occurring among seasonal agricultural workers in Tennessee, New Jersey, and Washington state on fruit and vegetable farms. These workers travel from farm to farm, packing into buses and sleeping in crowded bunkhouses. As the summer growing season blossoms, more of them will be on American farms nationwide.
As many as half of these farmers lack legal immigrant status; many do not speak English; and most are poorly paid and have minimal access to health care. Half a million strong, outbreaks among these workers represent a serious potential fracture in our fresh-produce pipeline.
The vulnerability that these workers represent in our food supply chain could be a perfect storm for a pandemic such as COVID-19, illustrating the need for a much-needed overhaul to improve food distribution, so that it can be safer and less prone to future disruptions.
It has become a cliché that fewer and fewer Americans "know where their food comes from." Over the past century, the number of farms in operation has dropped from approximately 6 million to 2 million. Likewise, agricultural workers now make up only 1% of the U.S. population, compared to 40% a century ago. While the choices in varieties of produce that are available to the general public have increased dramatically, so has the disconnect between farmers and consumers.
Although there is no shortage of food being grown here in the U.S., consumers are worried, as evidenced by the hoarding of certain products since the beginning of the pandemic lockdown.
There are many strategies and tools to approach these concerns. One example of the latter that could have a positive impact far into the future is the product of a novel collaboration between Purdue University and Microsoft to generate the Purdue Food and Agricultural Vulnerability Index online dashboard. It allows users, including members of the public, to survey in real time the potential risks to supply chains from agricultural workers' COVID-19 illnesses. The dashboard consists of an overlay of data regarding farm workers, COVID-19 cases, and various farm commodities produced in every county of every U.S. state.
Users can see which crops or livestock varieties and precisely which regions are most affected, as well as the concentration of that food commodity's production. The number of agricultural workers and the number who are currently positive for COVID-19 in a particular region are mapped out for each state, as well as the loss in productivity resulting from worker illnesses.
The dashboard comes with an interactive map that enables the user to move from a state as a whole to counties within that state. New York state's poultry industry, for example, has been hit hard by the pandemic, with a total of 305,945 out of 2 two million farm workers confirmed infected with COVID-19. The dashboard shows that the loss in production is 1.76%, with losses for broiler and egg-layers presented as well. Hovering a mouse over the map of New York reveals that the death toll for agricultural workers reached 28,769 in early June, a shocking 7.9%. A right click of the mouse drills down into New York's numbers even further, and a county by county map becomes visible, as do the data on agricultural workers and deaths, productivity lost, and percentage of lost production for each commodity.
Dashboard users can quickly identify problems in the supply chain and even get a feel for how their favorite farms are doing, whether local or on the other side of the country. This level of transparency can be empowering in the face of uncertainty and helplessness and make us less vulnerable to the misinformation that is so pervasive. And because of its interactive nature, flexibility, and user-friendly format, the dashboard will be invaluable to educators.
In times of uncertainty or crisis, the data collected via the dashboard could be used to create predictive models of how sectors of the food supply chain will be affected, which could enable the development of alternative, optimized supply chains to maintain full production in the face of potential disruptions.
The presence of this infrastructure could enable farmers to rapidly assess the likelihood for success of, for example, an introduced new crop variety, based on the production capacity and other data that accumulate under ordinary (non-pandemic) conditions. Finally, at a macro level, the accumulation of "big data" could be utilized across disciplines, from epidemiology to economics, to explore important questions regarding our lives and livelihoods.
The Purdue dashboard is a monumental achievement. While intriguing for both the general consumer and educators, the information collected can also provide invaluable data for policymakers trying to make food systems stronger, more resilient, and better able to adapt to adversity, so that food security can be ensured.
As the management of our food supply becomes ever more complex, the dashboard can be extended to incorporate additional commodities, such as food and animal waste and harvest losses. The result would be a more transparent, efficient, and sustainable food system that is ready for whatever Mother Nature throws at us next.
Kathleen Hefferon, Ph.D., teaches microbiology at Cornell University. Henry Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. He was the founding director of the Food & Drug Administration's Office of Biotechnology. Neither of the authors has any connection to the Purdue-Microsoft dashboard.