The stability of the global food system relies on immigrants

The food system is modern marvel, but it’s not impervious.
The food system is modern marvel, but it’s not impervious.
Image: AP photo/Mark Lennihan
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The monolithic global food system is a feat of humanity. The world has built for itself an interconnected system that can supply dragonfruit from South America to cities as rural and far-flung as Lander, Wyoming and Chamonix, France.

But the spread of Covid-19 is revealing a vulnerable link in the food supply chain: the immigrant populations that make up a large part of the agricultural workforce. The global food system as it operates today relies on immigrant labor to run smoothly, and the pandemic is emphasizing the risk of undervaluing that work.

Immigration’s impacts on the food supply are especially pronounced in the United States, where more than 50% of the agricultural workforce is comprised of undocumented immigrants. “Since time immemorial, immigrant workers have been especially vulnerable in our economy and have been doing difficult and dangerous jobs,” says Daniel Costa, who leads immigration law and policy research at the Economic Policy Institute. “Farm workers are by far some of the lowest paid workers in the labor market.”

Their work in meatpacking plants—where immigrant labor accounts for one-third of the workforce—is just one example. At a Smithfield Foods-owned meatpacking plant in South Dakota, employees told Buzzfeed News that many of the plant’s 3,700 workers are immigrant workers. That plant was among the 17 that have so far closed since the middle of April, including plants operated by Tyson Foods, JBS USA, and National Beef Packing. Collectively, those shuttered plants supply the US with about 25% of its meat. 

If immigrant workers in meatpacking plants and on farms continue to get sick, it could lead to food shortages of goods people have always purchased with ease.

“We haven’t faced something like that,” Costa says. “If we have major shortages we can always turn and import more food, but these problems are probably going to be happening in other countries, too.”

He’s right. They are. It’s a global story.

Essential workers

With global travel grinding to a near halt, agricultural industries that rely on seasonal migrant workers are especially hard-hit. In industrial countries, migrant workers often count for more than half (pdf) of seasonal workers on commercial farms.

In the UK, the National Farmers’ Union said a lack of migrant workers this year has caused a shortage of between 70,000 and 80,000 harvesters. And not enough British people—just 35,000—have signed up to fill the gap. That means a lot of food will be left to rot in fields.

In regions such as Aragon, Catalonia, Murcia, and Extremadura—where lots of cherries, nectarines, peaches, and apricots are grown—30,000 workers would normally be hired this season for harvesting, 85% of whom are typically foreigners. In the Huelva region of Spain alone, some 16,000 Moroccan seasonal workers would have arrived by this time of year to pick fruit. Less than half have made it, according to Spanish media. Fedpex, an industry group comprised of fruit and vegetable producers and exporters, estimates Spain will need 18,000 additional workers in May, and 28,000 in June.

In big agricultural countries within the European Union—where immigration is a divisive political issue—emergency policies are being enacted to ensure the stability of the broader food system. By royal decree, Spain will allow between 100,000 and 150,000 unemployed people and undocumented immigrants (pdf) to harvest food, an effort to account for a shortfall in migrant labor because of the coronavirus.

And in Italy, where the agricultural sector is staring down a lack of manpower, the minister of agriculture is drafting an express law to bestow a legal blessing on 200,000 migrants for a year so that they can serve as day laborers.

No matter how countries depend on migrant labor for carrying out the essential work of keeping the food supply chains up and running, the story is practically the same: These populations are largely unprotected, undervalued, and in many cases demonized by powerful political parties.

It comes at a cost

In Southeast Asia, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam (collectively referred to as ASEAN nations), migrants frequently criss-cross borders to fill jobs across multiple sectors, including agriculture. With tighter border controls, many migrant workers find themselves stuck either home or abroad, and often without any sort of healthcare safety or legal protection, according to a report (pdf) by Price Waterhouse Cooper.

“ASEAN’s food value chain is not only a major driver of GDP and employment in the region, but is crucial for ensuring the region’s food security,” the report says. “ASEAN faces a number of long-term challenges to its food security, and based on this report, it is our contention that Covid-19 will exacerbate these challenges in the short-term.”

In the US, undocumented immigrants supporting the nation’s agriculture industry have no access to government healthcare assistance or unemployment assistance should they fall ill or become unable to work.

Politicization of immigration exacerbates the challenges faced by workers. The forces that catalyzed the United Kingdom to leave the European Union were largely led by anti-immigrant sentiment within Britain’s right-leaning parties. In Spain, it’s seen in the rise of the right-wing Vox Party. In Italy, the attitude is baked into the right-wing League Party’s manifesto.

In the US, the right-wing Republican Party has generally taken a hardline stance against immigration. In an economic stimulus package signed by US president Donald Trump, legislation passed by a divided Congress didn’t include protections for the hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants harvesting food on farms. And on April 21, Trump said he would sign an executive order temporarily halting immigration into the country because of Covid-19.

But as details of the executive order have emerged, it has become clear the order will not be as all-encompassing as Trump initially stated. The US simply needs migrant workers to pick its food.

And so does the rest of the world. Immigrants around the globe are essential for the smooth operation of national food systems—which are globally interlinked. And with commodity futures prices suffering around the world, companies can’t afford to suffer the production losses that come from neglecting their migrant workforce.

If anything, the pandemic offers an opportunity for corporations and governments to better align their values around immigration policies to account for the outsized role immigrants play in keeping the food system steady. With more protections in place for the people at the foundation of food supply chains, it may be easier to weather future challenges—including unforeseen pandemics.