Agricultural Work

Some people may argue that “this is not the time to talk politics” which I have covered here. This post is not saying that the effects of the pandemic on agriculture is not important. In fact I am probably more worried about food production than most people, not just because of the pandemic but because of the increasing demand and climate change.

The virus is going to affect food production beyond the well publicised panic buying1.

“Global demand for food will increase by 50 percent and yields may decline by up to 30 percent by 2050 in the absence of ambitious climate action”.

The Global Commission On Adaptation2

It is not only the short term affect of the virus that we need to look at but the long term affect of increasing population, demand and climate change2,3,4,5.

The overall impact in the UK may be small compared to other countries since we spend relatively less on food – just over 10% of household income on average6. However, it could mean higher prices and shortages of certain items.

The affect on other poorer countries could be bigger since they spend a larger proportion of their income on food and this is likely to go up as richer countries increase their demand due to the virus. Some countries have already reduced exports – for example Kazakhstan has banned the export of wheat, Vietnam has banned the export of rice1.

This could lead to civil unrest as it has possibly done in the past when Russia stopped the export of wheat in 20117.

Shortage of Labour

There have been many calls for people to work in agriculture to replace the migrant labour8 with calls for people to ‘pick for Britain9‘.  However, there are several problems with working in the agricultural sector:

Deaths and Serious Injury

The agricultural industry is the most dangerous in the country with 9.21 deaths per 100,000 compared to the national average of 0.45 deaths per 100,000. Even construction only has 1.44 deaths per 100,00010.

Working  Conditions

Conditions for workers are often very poor with poor accommodation, hours and wages11,12,13,14. The workers are often working in conditions that could spread the virus but without adequate protection15.

Cheap migrant labour with little demand for increased wages and conditions have traditionally been used as a labour source for a reason.

If people from the UK take these jobs there are several problems:

  • wages and conditions as mentioned above
  • it is likely that you have long travel distances or have to live on site. If you live on site then you have to pay rent in two places.
  • cramped living and working conditions could increase the spread of the virus

Migrant Work Is An Important Source Of Income

Money earned by migrant labour is a n important source of income for many parts of the developing world.

In 2019, an estimated 200 million people in the global migrant workforce sent home US$715 billion (£571 billion). Of this, it’s estimated US$551 billion supported up to 800 million households living in low- and middle-income countries.16

Wrong Produce In The Wrong Place

The pandemic has also produced other disruptions to the food supply. Food that would normally be grown and packaged for the catering industry now has nowhere to go.

The nation’s largest dairy cooperative, Dairy Farmers of America, estimates that farmers are dumping as many as 3.7 million gallons of milk each day. A single chicken processor is smashing 750,000 unhatched eggs every week.17

Let Them Eat Asparagus

There is also a big question on why this labour is needed? Is it to provide people with the food that they need or to ensure a cheap supply of luxury items such as asparagus and soft fruit for the middle class shoppers in Waitrose?

Valuing Our Food

The UK food system  is broken18. The UK does not have strategy or planning for the supply of food in case of a shortage and only produces a small fraction of its food. I am not happy just to trust Tesco’s. More on this subject in future posts.


1 Coronavirus measures could cause global food shortage, UN warns, The Guardian, 2020 (https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/mar/26/coronavirus-measures-could-cause-global-food-shortage-un-warns)

2 Adapt Now: A Global Call For Leadership On Climate Resilience, The Global Commission On Adaptation, September 2019 (https://cdn.gca.org/assets/2019-09/GlobalCommission_Report_FINAL.pdf)

3 Recipe for Disaster, Climate Change Coalition, (https://www.theclimatecoalition.org/recipefordisaster/)

4 Future warming increases probability of globally synchronized maize production shocks, M Tigchelaar et al, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 2017 (https://www.pnas.org/content/pnas/115/26/6644.full.pdf)

5 No more beer, chocolate or coffee: how climate change could ruin your weekend , The Guardian, 2015 (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/jun/09/no-beer-chocolate-coffee-how-climate-change-ruin-your-weekend)

6 Family Food 2016/17: Expenditure, DEFRA (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/family-food-201617/expenditure)

7 The Food Crises and Political Instability in North Africa and the Middle East, Marco Lagi, Karla Z. Bertrand and Yaneer Bar-Yam (https://arxiv.org/pdf/1108.2455v1.pdf)

8 How to apply for farm work as coronavirus lockdown means 90,000 positions need filling, Metro, 2020 (https://metro.co.uk/2020/03/30/apply-farm-work-coronavirus-lockdown-means-90000-positions-need-filling-12478811)

9 Farmer urges unemployed and students to ‘pick for Britain’, AOL, April 2020 (https://www.aol.com/video/view/5e836417d21f1a54fcda1f37/)

10 RIDIND – RIDDOR reported fatal and non-fatal injuries in Great Britain by detailed industry, HSE, 2019 (https://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/tables/ridind.xlsx)

11 Waitrose suspends apple supplier after migrant worker report, Channel 4, 2015 (https://www.channel4.com/news/waitrose-suspends-apple-supplier-after-migrant-worker-report)

12 Shocking extent of modern slavery in agriculture revealed, Farmers Weekly, 2018 (https://www.fwi.co.uk/news/shocking-extent-of-modern-slavery-in-agriculture-revealed)

13 Fens migrant workers ‘exploited’, BBC finds, BBC, 2013 (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-24108665)

14 The exploitation of migrants has become our way of life, The Guardian, 2015 (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/aug/17/exploitation-migrants-way-of-life-immigration-business-model)

15 California’s farm workers pick America’s essential produce – unprotected from coronavirus , The Guardian, March 2020 (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/31/us-coronavirus-outbreak-california-farm-workers)

16 How coronavirus could hit the billions migrant workers send home, World Economic Forum 2020 (https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/04/how-coronavirus-could-hit-the-billions-migrant-workers-send-home/)

17 Dumped Milk, Smashed Eggs, Plowed Vegetables: Food Waste of the Pandemic, New York Times, April 2020 (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/11/business/coronavirus-destroying-food.html)

18 Diet, health, inequality: why Britain’s food supply system doesn’t work, The Guardian, March 2020 (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/mar/22/tim-lang-interview-professor-of-food-policy-city-university-supply-chain-crisis)

 

 

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