COVID-19’s Impact Upon Labor and Value Chains in the Agrifood System


We explore the impact of automation and digitalization on labor in the US agrifood system during the COVID-19 pandemic. This study considers each of the primary nodes in the system stretching from consumer through grocery stores and restaurants to last-mile delivery, distribution, food processing, farming, and agri-inputs. Not only automation and digitalization, but also the role of platforms such as Amazon, and food delivery firms such as GrubHub, Instacart, and Uber Eats are discussed. For restaurants, we consider not only dinein restaurants, but also “ghost kitchens”. Furthermore, the possibility that farmers or distributors could disintermediate other nodes and deal directly with consumers is discussed. We conclude that, as a generalization, the further upstream one goes from the consumer, the less immediate and disruptive automation is likely to be for labor. However, our overall conclusion is that, given the current trajectories, labor is becoming increasingly precarious. If the current labor shortages continue, then automation is likely to accelerate. Platformization, while rampant in the relationships with final consumers, is likely to be less rapidly adopted further upstream where relationships are B-to-B and thus composed of actors that are wary of sharing data.

Keywords: Digitization, Platform Economy, Agrifood Systems, Labor, Covid, Automation

M. Anne Visser
Mariah Padilla
Publication date: 
October 26, 2021
Publication type: 
Working Paper