sihlobo1_David RamosGetty Images_spaincoronavirusfarmercrops David Ramos/Getty Images

Agriculture After the Pandemic

After suffering severe labor shortages due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems unlikely that advanced-economy farmers will return to business as usual. Instead, many will probably attempt to mitigate the risks stemming from dependence on foreign seasonal workers by automating more of their operations.

PRETORIA – As the COVID-19 pandemic forces countries to close their borders, their agricultural sectors are confronting major challenges. Even in countries that are unlikely to face food insecurity – such as those in Europe and North America – farms are facing severe labor shortages, owing to new barriers that keep low-cost workers out. And the impact of the disruption on the supply of workers is likely to spur permanent shifts within the sector after the pandemic ends.

The risks inherent in depending on foreign seasonal workers have materialized in several European countries, including France, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands, which depend on labor from Eastern Europe. Between border closures and fears of sickness and quarantine, those workers are not coming this season, and many Western European crops are set to rot in the fields.

In parts of the United States, fears about agricultural-labor shortages were mounting even before the COVID-19 crisis. Americans do not want to work in the fields, so farmers depend largely on seasonal Mexican migrant workers. Participants in the H-2A visa program – covering those who have been hired to fill agriculture jobs lasting less than one year – comprise 10% of all farmworkers in the US.

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