Across the globe, governments are imposing travel limits in a bid to stem the spread of coronavirus. The unintended consequence is a squeeze on migrant labor that’s a cornerstone of food production.
American produce growers preparing to harvest crops are warning of a devastating impact on fruit and vegetables after the U.S. Embassy in Mexico announced a halt to visa interviews for seasonal farm workers. Slaughterhouses also may face labor shortages.
In Australia, growers say the country may face shortages of some fruits and vegetables because of travel curbs, with the nation traditionally using overseas workers for one third of seasonal farming jobs. Kiwifruit pickers are in short supply in New Zealand. And in Canada, travel limits threaten meat processors that rely on temporary foreign workers to fill chronic labor shortages.
“There won’t be anyone to harvest the crops,” said Robert Guenther, senior vice president for public policy for the United Fresh Produce Association, which represents U.S. growers, distributors, wholesalers and retailers. “It will be devastating to growers and ultimately to the supply chain and consumers. They won’t have the food.”
Vulnerable supply chains
Expectations for a labor crunch reveal how interconnected the world of global agriculture has become, and expose the strains of production and areas of vulnerability to the supply chain. In many key food-making nations, the industry relies heavily on migrant and immigrant workers to fill jobs that middle-class citizens shun. Think of the back-breaking work of tomato pickers, the dangerous conditions at slaughter houses and what many would consider the unpalatable environment of large livestock-feed operations.
The timing for the disruptions in some ways couldn’t be worse. In the Northern Hemisphere, farmers are gearing up for their peak spring and summer growing seasons. Ranchers also tend to sell more animals to slaughter at this time of year.