Responding to the Pandemic with Trusted Economic Analysis

In Fiscal Year (FY) 2020, the nation faced one of its greatest challenges that impacted nearly every facet of day-to-day life. As the coronavirus pandemic spread to nearly every country in the world, agricultural and manufacturing supply chains experienced dramatic challenges. Stay-at-home orders became common changing many people’s eating habits, from where they bought and consumed their food, to how much it cost, and whether they had enough to eat.

USDA’s Economic Research Service has long responded to emerging issues with timely resources and trusted information to help policymakers understand evolving situations and make informed decisions. Even as COVID-19 was just reaching the United States, ERS’s Commodity Outlook reports began providing analysis, beginning in February 2020 with initial mentions in the Livestock, Dairy and Poultry Outlook (see page 7) and Oil Crops Outlook (see page 5).

As the virus’ impact on agricultural markets spread, ERS Commodity Outlook teams provided consistent analyses of the emerging situation in Outlook reports and developed Charts of Note to provide interim updates. Examples of the breadth and depth of coverage include examinations of the effects of the outbreak on China’s demand for imported poultry, the impact of changing U.S. food consumption patterns on demand for wheat, dairy products, and produce, and the significant effects of stay-at-home orders on corn ethanol production, among many other assessments.

ERS researchers also recognized the critical need for new data on COVID-19 and the resulting economic recession. In response, ERS partnered with the U.S. Census Bureau and other statistical agencies to develop the Household Pulse Survey. This weekly online survey provided near real-time statistics on how the coronavirus pandemic was impacting households across the country. The Household Pulse Survey included questions ERS developed on food insufficiency, which means that a household did not have enough food to eat sometimes or often in the last seven days. Among other findings, these data have shown increases in child food insufficiency.

As consumers began to experience effects such as shortages of products on grocery store shelves during the spring of 2020, ERS continued to develop and release information to help apprise the public and decisionmakers of the situation. ERS formed a rapid response team of economists from across all subject areas to stay ahead of issues affecting agriculture and the food supply chain, and to produce relevant research products.

In response to a need for the latest information on the pandemic’s impact on the food system, consumers, producers, and the economy, the rapid response team began releasing the latest research as part of the COVID-19 Working Paper series. These papers explore commodity consumption by food source, using monthly data to evaluate changes in the ERS forecast of crop values and animal production, the effects of COVID-19 on food sales, the growth in certain food assistance benefits, and provide an update to ERS’s International Food Security Assessment. ERS has more working papers in development and will continue to address emerging issues with the release of a variety of timely research products.   

ERS’s regularly recurring reports and data products also contained analyses of the pandemic’s impacts on food and agriculture. The summary findings of the monthly Food Price Outlook provided forecasts of retail food price inflation, while ERS also developed new data products, such as Weekly Retail Food Sales.

As the pandemic continued, ERS economists took a deeper look at the impacts on rural America, with website topic pages that explored topics such as employment, specifically in meat-packing dependent counties. ERS continues to track these issues, providing recent in-depth analyses through the annual report, Rural America at a Glance.

The pandemic will continue to evolve in 2021 and to have lingering effects on producers and consumers, However, ERS is uniquely positioned to provide economic analysis that will help us understand and make informed decisions. And when the next major challenges to agriculture appear on the horizon, ERS will again be ready to respond.