A Donald Trump presidency could lead to food shortages in the US

Somebody has to pick those fruits and vegetables.
Somebody has to pick those fruits and vegetables.
Image: AP Photo/Lucy Nicholson
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Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump has plenty of proposals for how he would “make America great again,” but perhaps most controversial is his plan to to round up and deport the country’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants—one that has met both resounding support and flabbergasted outrage.

But apart from the toll such a plan would take on the deported immigrants, their families and the communities they’ve built, many Americans may not realize what it would do to one of the most basic components of their daily life: their diets.

Approximately half of US farmworkers are unauthorized immigrants

There is no single, reliable national estimate for the total number of hired farmworkers in the US, but many estimates, like one from the American Farm Bureau Federation (pdf) hover around 1.5 to 2 million.

It’s an open secret in agriculture that half or more of those workers are unauthorized immigrants. The Farm Bureau, a non-governmental umbrella organization that advocates for farmers across the country, states that “at least 50-70 percent of farm laborers in the country today are unauthorized.” (emphasis ours)

The data reflect “a two-decade pattern in which three-fourths of farm workers were born abroad and half were unauthorized,” according to an analysis by Philip Martin, a professor of agricultural and resource economics at the University of California, Davis.

The reliance on foreign labor can be traced, at least in part, back to the World War II Bracero Program, which began with an August 1942 agreement between the US and Mexico to bring Mexican laborers in to fill US agricultural jobs. More than 4.5 million Mexicans worked legally under contract during the program’s 22-year span.

Sporadic changes to the immigration laws followed for decades, as worker programs were created and amended, combined with “look the other way” enforcement practices. While the border is now much more tightly patrolled than it was 40 years ago, the impacts of the program and the lax regulation that followed are still apparent.

A workforce not easily replaced

In 2011, farmers in Georgia complained about the lack of skilled workers due to the state’s stringent new anti-immigration laws. (Even though states cannot deport people, a state law can decimate the immigrant labor pool because many immigrants stop feeling safe enough to work there.)

“We just don’t have the labor and it’s gonna get worse,” a Georgia farmer told The Daily (pdf) in the summer of 2011, after letting a third of his produce die in the field because he didn’t have the manpower to harvest. In 2012, increased federal anti-immigration efforts led to similar tales of labor shortages from New York to California.

As farmers in Georgia and across the US have discovered, when immigrant workers aren’t around, they are difficult to replace. ”US workers are totally unwilling to do this work,” says Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern, an assistant professor of food studies at Syracuse University. Plus, she says, they often lack the skills.

While row crops such as soy and corn can be easily harvested with machinery, most fruits, vegetables and nuts require human hands, whether to pick them from the tree or to package them for sale. These jobs are intensive and skilled and may be performed over 12-14 hour shifts in temperatures over 100°F (38°C). But they do not pay well, with the largest group showing farm earnings of only $10,000-$20,000 each year, according to Martin’s report. Even for immigrants with legal status, the jobs are rough. “In most states they don’t get paid overtime, they don’t get vacation, they don’t get health insurance,” Minkoff-Zern told Quartz.

Workers’ living conditions are no better. “Farm workers often live in crowded or substandard housing, as several families share a single-family home or solo workers live in converted garages,” Martin writes.

Because they’re undocumented, these farm workers are especially vulnerable to physical and verbal abuse, exposure to dangerous pesticides, wage theft, and chronic disease related to heat stress. “Workers with immigration status can shop around for better jobs,” Megan Horn Essaheb, the staff attorney and policy analyst at Farmworker Justice tells Quartz, but those without legal status don’t have that luxury. 

Georgia’s berry and vegetable producers alone were estimated to have been 5,000 workers short during the height of the 2011 season. That resulted in approximate losses of $75 million for 189 fruit and vegetable producers, which led to additional losses of $103.6 million in the state’s total goods and services, and 870 full time jobs, according to a survey by the University of Georgia. Nationally, immigration from Mexico has slowed, and agricultural losses are already mounting: Last summer the Wall Street Journal reported (paywall) that the drop in laborers has led to a 9.5% annual decline in fruit and vegetable production nationwide, or a loss of $3.1 billion per year.

A Trump presidency could halt the wheels of agriculture

Under a Trump immigration plan, though, things would undoubtedly get much worse. The sudden disappearance of half of America’s hired crop workers would have catastrophic impacts on the $835 billion agriculture sector, of which about $177 billion—or about 1% of the US’s GDP—comes from farms. This would have wide-ranging implications for Americans, both short-term and long-term.

Labor shortages would create food shortages, increase imports, and raise prices. ”If agriculture were to lose access to all undocumented workers, agricultural output would fall by $30 to $60 billion,” the Farm Bureau predicts. “The immediate loss of this large a share of the general work force would cause economic chaos,” the organization found in a 2014 report on labor.

Food industry leaders agree. “Almost certainly there would be a great deal of difficulty making the engine of agriculture work,” says Tony Sarsam, CEO of ReadyPac Foods, a major producer of packaged salads, sliced fruit and pre-cut vegetables. He predicts “problems in the food supply if we started shipping people home.”

“It’s a frightening prospect,” said Michael Joseph, CEO of Green Chef, an organic meal kit delivery company. “I don’t think voters are connecting the dots,” he says. “We will have skyrocketing prices, driven by shortages.”

The Farm Bureau’s 2014 report estimated that an enforcement-only approach that leaves almost no undocumented workers in the economy, like the one proposed by Trump, would raise food prices 5%-6%. It also predicted “smaller supplies of products generally despite higher imports.” American farms could produce 15%-31% less vegetables, 30%-61% less fruit, and 13%-27% less red meat. Some of the cost would be passed to consumers, but most would be absorbed by farmers. They could face net revenue losses of 30%-40% from the combination of higher costs and lower outputs, according to the report. 

Of course it’s highly unlikely, even if Trump were elected, that such a plan could actually be implemented. But the climate of fear in immigrant communities that a Trump presidency would likely create would have a dramatic effect on available labor, Minkoff-Zern said, and would not be easily reparable.

It would probably speed up what’s already happening: Fewer immigrants would make their way from Mexico to the US. Agriculture is already evolving to “stretch the workforce” and require fewer hands, whether by breeding easier-to-harvest crops or adding conveyor belts to fields, Martin writes.

An increase in the H-2A guest worker program could also lessen the blow by bringing in more authorized migrant workers, but as NPR explained in January, these seasonal workers are expensive: They must be paid a wage set by the federal government and given free housing and transportation to and from the field.

Of course, those who advocate for immigrant workers would never argue that all is well with the status quo—in which unauthorized workers are forced to work for low wages in unsafe and unhealthy conditions. But it’s worth noting that by some estimates, it would cost consumers less to pay these essential farmworkers a living wage than to deport them. A 40% increase in farmworker wages, a report from the Economic Policy Institute found, would cost American households only about $16 more a year—just a 3.7% increase in fruit and vegetable spending compared with what they spend today.

The Trump campaign did not respond to Quartz’s requests for an interview or comment, so it’s unclear how he plans to fill in the labor gaps left by deporting America’s unauthorized workforce, especially when it comes to the business of creating food. But it’s hard to imagine making America great again on an empty stomach.