Introducing the Purdue Food and Agriculture Vulnerability Index for COVID-19
Author: Dr. Jayson Lusk, Distinguished Professor and Head of the Purdue University Department of Agricultural Economics
Concerns about the spread of COVID-19 led to shut down and stay-at-home orders across the country in mid-March 2020, resulting in sizable and significant demand shocks to the food system. Restaurants and cafeterias were shuddered, and demand in groceries spiked. For the first time in most consumers’ memories, many grocery store shelves were bare. Consumers realize they knew very little about where their food came from and began asking hard questions about whether there would be enough food to eat.
In response to some consumer concerns about the disruptions being observed in the food supply chain, we created a couple resources. The first was a short explanation about the supply chain, which addressed many of the most common questions that had emerged. Second, in collaboration with Microsoft, we released an interactive dashboard we call the Purdue Food and Agriculture Vulnerability Index to help illustrate and communicate the possible farm-level risks to food production posed by COVID illnesses. This is both an educational tool for consumers who might be interested in learning more about where their food comes from and a tool for the industry to identify if and where hotspots are emerging that need to be corrected.
The dashboard estimates the number of agricultural workers who are sick from COVID by comparing total cases in a county with the share of the county’s population who are farmers or hired agricultural laborers. We compare the geographic pattern of agricultural worker COVID illness to the pattern of production for particular crops and animals. If there are a large number of COVID cases in a location that grows the vast majority of a particular agricultural crop, then we can infer that production of that crop is at risk. The level of risk is inferred by creating an estimate of the percent of total state or national production of a crop that is potentially lost from COVID illnesses.
As it turns out, the risk is very low for most agricultural commodities. Less than 1% of total production is estimated to be at risk. The reasons are straightforward: 1) the production of most major agricultural commodities is distributed over a wide geography, and 2) the percent of the population with COVID in rural/agricultural areas remains low.
This doesn’t mean the food supply is not facing significant disruptions or risks. Many of the problems that have been observed in the food supply chain are at the processing level, particularly in areas like meat packing, which are heavily reliant on labor. Over time, we hope to add potential risks to the nation’s food supply that result from processing-related disruptions; however, at the moment, COVID poses little risk to the aggregate farm-level supply of food to the processing sector in the United States.
There are several ways I hope to expand this tool, should funding emerge and time allow. As we’ve seen, the risks from COVID appear to be less related to agricultural production and more related to food processing. Data on location and distribution of food processing facilities and numbers of food processing workers employed in each location is harder to come by, but it’s not an impossible task. There are other items we’ll continue to work on to help make the tool more user-friendly and functional.
*Road from Farm to Table graphic: Purdue Agricultural Communications