Empty grocery store shelves are troubling enough to California consumers who are accustomed to abundant supplies. To hear about farmers dumping milk, crushing eggs and plowing under crops when demand for food is strong just doesn't make sense to most consumers. Although the new coronavirus crisis has currently derailed the connection between supply and demand, “the food system in the United States is resilient and there is little reason for alarm about food availability,” write University of California agricultural economists.
Overall, neither food consumption nor the amount of food supplied by farms have changed much, they write in a new article published by UC's Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics. The authors explain that the sudden closure of schools, restaurants and other institutions, coupled with residents in many states sheltering in place to reduce the spread of COVID-19, has disrupted normal patterns of where people buy food.
“Price changes, surpluses and shortages along the food supply chain are likely the result of recent and temporary shocks to supply, demand or both,” said co-author Ellen Bruno, UC Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at UC Berkeley.
“On the demand side, we have seen customers shift to buying more food at the grocery store as restaurants and other food service businesses have closed. Plus, consumers have changed what they consume and stockpile during these times,” she said.
Initially, worried consumers stocked up on staples such as rice and pasta that store well. Then, with more free time, they started cooking at home and baking their own bread and pastries, buying up eggs, flour, sugar and other baking supplies.
“On the supply side, there are challenges in trying to rearrange production and packaging to service grocery stores, as opposed to restaurants, schools, etc. which often purchase items in different quantities,” Bruno said. “Plus, there are the obvious health concerns and potential disruptions due to the impact of the virus on the workers themselves.”
How quickly the food supply system will adapt to changing demand depends on the product, according to Bruno and her co-authors Richard J. Sexton, UC Davis professor, and Daniel A. Sumner, director of the UC Agricultural Issues Center and UC Davis professor, both in the Department of Agricultural & Resource Economics. Canned fruits and vegetables are often processed shortly after harvest and can be moved from storage to retail fairly quickly. To increase egg production, farmers have to add to the number of laying hens, which takes months. Many perishable produce items are planted, harvested, packed and shipped according to a precise schedule to replenish grocery store inventories “just in time” so farmers can't quickly increase the amount of fresh fruit and vegetables they supply.
Produce wholesalers who sell to food service have products and packaging specifically designed for that market. For example, packing plants that prepare large bulk salad packages for restaurants aren't set up to pack salad into retail-ready bags that require consumer labels. While adjustments were made, some fresh produce rotted or was plowed under.
After the COVID-19 disruption ends, the authors expect the food supply chain to evolve as the economy gradually recovers.
“In the longer term, even after restaurants and the food service industry are back and running, reduced incomes due to the recession will change our consumption patterns,” Bruno said. “Demand for food consumed at home doesn't change much with income, but demand for food at restaurants does. In many ways, food service and the growers that supply directly to food service will be hardest hit by all of this because they suffer both in the short run with mandatory closures and in the long run with an economic recession.”
Although it's uncertain how long the pandemic will last, the authors say Americans will have an adequate supply of safe, healthy food.
“Despite these disruptions, overall our food supply chain is robust and adaptable,” Bruno said. “Nothing in the underlying economics suggests that there will be a lack of food available.”
To read “The Coronavirus and the Food Supply Chain,” visit https://bit.ly/covidimpactonfood.