What policy, strategy and/or structural changes might be required to accelerate the agricultural sector’s recovery out of the COVID-19 economic downturn in your region?
President and CEO, Farm Foundation
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted two major points about United States (US) agriculture. First, our system is incredibly resilient. In the face of rapid and unpredictable changes throughout 2020, American farmers and indeed the entire agriculture value chain have reacted with characteristic determination. At the same time, COVID-19 did not expose new issues in US agriculture as much as it emphasised the challenges the system was already facing. Among the issues thrown into sharp relief during the pandemic were supply chain disruptions, labour shortages and the impact of government policies.
Disruptions to the food supply chain in the US got an incredible amount of attention as the pandemic unfolded. While there was no way to plan for such an unprecedented shift, which prevented farmers from selling their products and retailers from stocking their shelves, A.G. Kawamura, a fruit and vegetable grower in California and Farm Foundation board member, says it showed what needed to be done to be more prepared for the future. “In a world that has to feed almost 8 billion people currently, it’s pretty clear there’s a lot of room for innovation,” he says. “Those producers who were willing to utilize their infrastructure but tweak it — they showed that we have the strength to quickly fill a weakness in the delivery system.” As examples, he cites the boom experienced by community supported agriculture organisations (CSAs), as well as the flexibility shown by producers of highly perishable products to adapt packaging, shipping and distribution practices to meet different consumer needs. “Because of the pandemic, there are a lot of areas where we can now see ourselves moving forward toward more resilience by having a plan B and plan C in place to address these needs under new constraints and pressures.”
Dan Basse, a Farm Foundation board member and ag economist, says supply and demand implications go beyond produce and animal protein. At a recent Farm Foundation Forum, he reminded the audience that grain producers, particularly those producing corn for ethanol, are also feeling the pain. “The US has a massive amount of corn stocks,” he says, “and the market is going to be facing those large stocks for years to come.” This is not helped by the decreased demand for ethanol as Americans instantly stayed home and drove fewer miles. While those miles are climbing again, Basse says, “The agriculture industry needs to be vocal on the importance of ethanol and biofuels in our future.”
Similarly, labour shortages that existed long before COVID-19 were accentuated by the pandemic, as borders closed and growers faced barriers in getting visas for the guest workers they typically rely on to harvest crops. And, as Kawamura points out, “It’s a continual challenge to know your harvest crews are vulnerable to outbreaks that could shut down quite a bit of your operation.” There’s no doubt that technology plays a role in solving this challenge, and many companies in the US and elsewhere are exploring robotics and other automation technologies to supplement a traditional ag workforce. However, technology is a substitution for some labour, but not all. Continued work to ensure the agriculture industry has access to an adequate workforce will be important to its ability to thrive following the pandemic.
Finally, the impact of government policies on agriculture is as important today as it was pre-pandemic. These policies, which have received even more attention than usual during the presidential election, will continue to influence agriculture going forward. According to the American Farm Bureau Federation, in 2019, 40% of farm income came from government aid in the form of trade assistance, disaster assistance and other programs. Pam Johnson, a sixth-generation Iowa farmer, says the government can also play a role in shifting that balance. “Farmers want to make our income from the marketplace,” she says, noting that while relief payments have kept a lot of farmers operating, it is also important to continue pursuing strategies to ensure healthy market opportunities both in the US and abroad.
In the US, the pandemic has now spanned an entire growing season – the clock by which much of our ag industry keeps time. The clock is now ticking with urgency as the industry, as well as federal, state and local governments, look to help agriculture move forward. Our famously resilient US agriculture system is up to the task, but it will take creative energy, renewed commitment to innovation, and cooperation across the value chain. Farm Foundation is dedicated to fostering the dialogue and multi-stakeholder collaboration necessary to accelerate solutions.
Focus on Farm Policy: The Food and Agriculture Platforms of the 2020 Presidential Candidates (Farm Foundation Forum recording): https://www.farmfoundation.org/forums/2020-farm-foundation-forums/focus-on-farm-policy/
Challenges & Opportunities for Agriculture in a Post-Pandemic World (Farm Foundation Forum recording): https://www.farmfoundation.org/forums/2020-farm-foundation-forums/virtual-forum-challenges-opportunities-for-agriculture-in-a-post-pandemic-world/
Managing Agricultural Trade in an Increasingly Chaotic World (Two-part webinar series produced by Farm Foundation and the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute): https://www.farmfoundation.org/managing-agricultural-trade-in-an-increasingly-chaotic-world/
Shari Rogge-Fidler is a fifth-generation farm owner from Nebraska, who began in her career in financial services in London. Since then, she has worked in various parts of the food value chain, having held executive positions in multiple food and agriculture organisations. Today, Shari leads Farm Foundation in its mission to build trust and understanding at the intersections of agriculture and society. As an objective force in US agriculture, Farm Foundation seeks to foster dialogue, information and training that will accelerate people and ideas into action that impacts the future of farming.
The COVID-19 health crisis has taken hold on the economic sectors with significant effects. These effects are likely to be long-lasting, with a recession threatening the European Union and other world economies.
This crisis also highlights the importance of food security. Some in the European Union may have tended to take it for granted, or even to make European agriculture the banker of certain bi or multilateral trade negotiations.
Food security is the right balance between boosting European agricultural sectors, a strong single European market ensuring fluidity of trade, and trade with the rest of the world meeting the remaining needs of the European Union and meeting the demands of world markets.
To respond to the economic crise due to the COVID pandemic, the EU has put in place an extraordinary Recovery fund with a €750 billion plan agreed in July 2020. For agriculture, the economic recovery plan consists of €8 billion for the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD) in 2021 and 2022.
It is crucial that these €8 billion would be used in a targeted way, to really prepare the future and the rebound of the European agricultural sectors.
This implies giving priority to the funding of double performance – economic and environmental – transition investments, as well as measures to increase farmers’ competence in innovative techniques, to strengthen the structuring of the sectors and the promotion of European products.
The objective would therefore be to devote at least 5 billion euros of this allocation to support investment in precision agriculture in 2021 and 2022, in addition to the investment measures that will be implemented in the framework of the reformed Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) from 2023 (and those pursued during the transition period).
These 5 billion euros would constitute a decisive incentive for a special plan of 10 billion euros of investments in order to widely spread the use of Decision Support Tools (DSTs) on all European agricultural surfaces and to accelerate the accessibility of digital tools to livestock farms.
Precision agriculture provides farmers and livestock farmers with solutions adapted to their context. Data from sensors, cameras, satellites and meteorological stations are processed by algorithms that use DSTs to provide advice on the most relevant actions that can be taken.
The use of these tools ensures better input efficiency at the farm level. The latter are adjusted to the quantified needs of crops and animals while ensuring optimal yields. They are crucial tools in the transition of European agriculture towards a dual-performance agriculture: more economical in terms of inputs, taking care of the environment, and more economically efficient.
Digital agriculture also has the potential to simplify the administrative burden, both in respect of the implementation and control of CAP measures, and in respect of the data entered by farmers.
This change will lead to substantial savings in inputs, which will ensure greater sustainability and profitability of European production, an operational response:
• to citizens’ expectations regarding the environment and food quality,
• and to the imperatives of cost competitiveness, but also of promoting quality approaches.
These investments will have to be reasoned in different ways in order to be adapted to the diversity of farms. While farms above a certain size can make the investments alone, it will be appropriate to encourage collective investments in other cases, particularly in regions where farms may be smaller.
While studies highlight the benefits of such tools, the transition from the “research” phase to the agricultural sphere is still slow. To date, digital agriculture remains poorly democratised.
In addition, there are other main obstacles: the cost of these technologies, the fear that such long-term investments could quickly become obsolete.
However, in view of their economic, social and environmental benefits, it would be urgent to extend within the European Union the use of precision farming tools in crop production and the use of sensors and robots in animal husbandry.
The European Union must be an actor in the democratisation of these tools, making them accessible to all farmers and livestock breeders whatever the type and size of their farms, their farming practices and their backgrounds.