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U.S. food system accounted for between 7 to 28 percent of the Nation’s 2007 use of five natural resources

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Conserving natural resources starts with identifying where they are used. A recent Economic Research Service (ERS) study examined how much of 5 of the Nation’s natural resources were used in 2007 to feed Americans aged 2 and above. (2007 data were the latest available with the level of detail needed for the analysis.) The researchers looked at the entire U.S. food system from production of farm inputs—such as fertilizers and feed—through points of consumer purchases in grocery stores and eating-out places to home kitchens. Their estimates show that agricultural land use in the U.S. food system was 25.5 percent of the country’s 2.3 billion acres of total land. Although the study does not account for other food-related land use, such as by forestry and mining industries serving the food system, it does show that about half of agricultural land is dedicated to food production for the U.S. market, and the other half was devoted to nonfood crops, like cotton and corn for producing ethanol, and to export crops, like soybeans. The U.S. food system also accounted for an estimated 28 percent of 2007’s freshwater withdrawals, 11.5 percent of the fossil fuel budget, and 7.2 percent of marketed forest products. Air is a natural resource that is degraded by the addition of greenhouses gases. The food system accounted for an estimated 18.1 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2007. A version of this chart appears in the ERS report, Resource Requirements of Food Demand in the United States, May 2020 and the Amber Waves feature article, “A Shift to Healthier Diets Likely To Affect Use of Natural Resources.”

Global trading prices for rice rose to highest level in 7 years due to export restrictions

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Global rice price movements typically have major impacts on import levels in price-sensitive markets, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, the world’s largest rice importing region, where rice is becoming increasingly important to the diet of many lower-income households. Despite projections for near-record global rice supplies in 2019/20, trading prices for rice in mid-April rose to their highest points in more than 7 years after several major exporting countries imposed export bans and restrictions in March as a response to heightened concerns over domestic food security following the outbreak of COVID-19. The rapid increase in global prices occurred as trade restrictions first announced in March in Southeast Asia sharply reduced global exportable supplies. The reduction in the already-small number of rice suppliers immediately affected global prices, including those from the United States, a major rice exporter. U.S. prices, which were already well above competitors’ levels, increased 10 percent in mid-April from late February. Over the same time period, price quotes for Thailand’s exported rice had increased 32 percent, and Vietnam’s had increased almost 25 percent. Apart from export restrictions, temporary mandatory lockdowns in two major rice-exporting nations, India and Pakistan, hindered the movement of rice to the port for export, and further reduced exportable supplies. During the first two weeks of May, Thailand’s prices dropped slightly while the United States’ and Vietnam’s prices remained unchanged. The amount of rice traded globally is currently projected to decline more than 1 percent in 2020 from the previous year and then increase 5 percent in 2021. This chart is based on the May 2020 Rice Outlook.

A large share of land enrolled in USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program was located in the Plains, from Texas to Montana

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) covered about 22.3 million acres of environmentally sensitive land at the end of fiscal 2019. With an annual budget of roughly $1.8 billion, CRP was USDA’s largest single conservation program in terms of spending that year. CRP enrollees receive annual rental and other incentive payments for taking eligible land out of production for 10 years or more. Voluntary retirement of cropland under CRP provides numerous environmental benefits related to soil erosion, water quality, wildlife habitat provision, and other environmental services. As of January 2020, total CRP enrollment was 21.9 million acres—with a large share of that land located in the Plains (from Texas to Montana), where rainfall is limited and much of the land is subject to potentially severe wind erosion. Smaller concentrations of CRP land were found in eastern Washington, southern Iowa, northern Missouri, and the Mississippi Delta. Approximately 5.4 million acres will expire in September 2020. CRP General Signup 54, which concluded in February 2020, accepted over 3.8 million acres for enrollment in October 2020. Acreage continues to be accepted under continuous signup. This chart updates data found in the Economic Research Service data product, Ag and Food Statistics: Charting the Essentials, updated March 2020.

H-2A positions increased fivefold between fiscal 2005 and 2019

Friday, May 22, 2020

The H-2A Temporary Agricultural Program provides a legal means to bring foreign-born workers into the United States on a temporary basis. Workers employed on an H-2A visa are allowed to remain in the U.S. for up to 10 months at a time. Employers must demonstrate, and the U.S. Department of Labor must certify, that efforts to recruit U.S. workers were not successful. Employers must also pay a region-specific minimum wage, known as the Adverse Effect Wage Rate, which is set at the average wage for crop and livestock workers in that region in the prior year, as measured in USDA’s Farm Labor Survey. In addition, employers must pay for application and visa processing fees, provide housing for their H-2A workers, and pay for their domestic and international transportation. One of the clearest indicators of the scarcity of farm labor is the fact that the number of H-2A positions requested and approved has increased fivefold in the past 14 years—from just over 48,000 positions certified in fiscal 2005 to nearly 258,000 in fiscal 2019. The average duration of an H-2A certification in fiscal 2019 was 5.3 months, implying that the 258,000 positions certified represented about 114,000 full-year equivalents. The impact of this year’s shelter-in-place restrictions due to COVID-19 are not reflected in the data discussed. This chart appears in the Economic Research Service topic page for Farm Labor, updated April 2020.

Meat and poultry plants employed close to a third of the 1.7 million U.S. food and beverage manufacturing employees in 2018

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

According to the latest available Federal data, in 2018, the U.S. food and beverage manufacturing sector employed more than 1.7 million people, or just over 1 percent of all U.S. nonfarm employment. Within the U.S. manufacturing sector, food and beverage manufacturing employees accounted for the largest share of employees (14.6 percent). In thousands of food and beverage manufacturing plants located throughout the country, these employees were engaged in transforming raw agricultural materials into food products for intermediate use or final consumption. Manufacturing jobs include processing, inspecting, packing, janitorial and guard services, product development, and recordkeeping, as well as nonproduction duties such as sales, delivery, advertising, and clerical and routine office functions. In 2018, meat and poultry plants employed the largest share of food and beverage manufacturing workers (29.3 percent), followed by bakeries (15.5 percent), and beverage plants (12.2 percent). This chart appears in the Ag and Food Sectors and the Economy section of the Economic Research Service data product Ag and Food Statistics: Charting the Essentials.

Wholesale price for Cheddar cheese falls sharply as demand falls

Monday, May 18, 2020

Cheese is the largest product category for the dairy industry. Wholesale prices—prices paid to manufacturers—of Cheddar cheese serve as benchmarks for pricing many types of cheese and affect the pricing structure for most U.S. milk at the farm level. Between March 7 and May 2, wholesale prices for Cheddar cheese fell 35 percent because of effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. For the week ending May 2, the weighted-average price for Cheddar cheese was $1.134 per pound, and the lowest since 2009, when the Great Recession had a significant impact on global dairy demand. By the week ending May 8, that price had risen to $1.146 per pound. As research has shown that declining incomes usually have a negative effect on cheese consumption, Americans facing financial hardships caused by the pandemic are likely buying less cheese. Furthermore, cheese consumption has shifted from food service establishments, where people eat higher proportions of cheese, to at-home consumption. This shift has caused supply chain bottlenecks due to logistics and smaller unit-packaging needs of retail stores. At the same time, the dairy industry has entered its peak season of milk production. Global dairy trade is also affected by the pandemic, limiting the ability of U.S. suppliers to export cheese and other dairy products. Cheese prices are currently expected to strengthen as the year progresses. This chart is based on Economic Research Service’s Livestock, Dairy and Poultry Outlook, April 2020.

Citrus Greening Disease caused falling production in Florida, but production is forecast to stabilize in 2019/20

Friday, May 15, 2020

A disease affecting citrus trees hit Florida’s groves especially hard in the past decade and a half. But despite the disease’s ravages, Florida citrus production levels for the 2019/20 season are forecast to be about steady with last year (2018/19). The United States is a major global citrus producer with the 2018/19 crop valued at $3.35 billion. The citrus industry is vulnerable to numerous threats, including Huanglongbing (HLB), which has attacked the industry since 2005. HLB, also known as citrus greening disease, impedes citrus trees’ ability to process nutrients, disrupts the maturation of fruit, and shortens tree life. Although now present in every commercial citrus-producing State, including California, Arizona, and Texas, HLB has spread most rapidly through Florida, the nation’s top producer of oranges and grapefruit; it is now estimated to have infected all groves in the State. Since HLB arrived in Florida, the State went from producing nearly 80 percent of the nation’s non-tangerine citrus fruit to less than 42 percent. Disregarding a temporary drop in production in 2017/18 caused by Hurricane Irma, production levels have been relatively stable for the last four years. This steady trend in production may suggest Florida growers are succeeding at retarding further spread of the disease and minimizing its effect on infected trees. This chart is based on the Economic Research Service (ERS) Fruit and Tree Nuts Outlook Report, released March 2020, and ERS Fruit and Tree Nuts Yearbook Tables, released October 2019.

Number of people receiving SNAP benefits is linked to the strength of the economy

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the Nation’s largest food and nutrition assistance program. SNAP is available to most needy households with limited incomes and assets, subject to certain work and immigration status requirements. As a means-tested program, the number of people eligible for SNAP is inherently linked to the health of the economy, making it one of the Nation’s primary countercyclical assistance programs—contracting during periods of economic growth and expanding during economic downturns. National statistics from 1980 to 2018 on employment, poverty, and SNAP participation provide historical context for current U.S. economic conditions. Historical statistics reveal that the number of SNAP participants generally tracks the number of unemployed people and the number of people in poverty in the United States. Improvement in economic conditions during the early stages of an economic recovery may take longer to be felt by the low-wage workers who are more likely to receive SNAP benefits, resulting in a lagged response of SNAP participation to a reduction in the unemployment rate. This chart appears in the Economic Research Service report, The Food Assistance Landscape: FY 2018 Annual Report, April 2019.

Most new antibiotic approvals for food animals have been generic drugs also used for humans

Monday, May 11, 2020

U.S. regulations on antibiotic use in food animal production have focused on antibiotics important for human disease treatment, which the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) terms “medically important.” If current human antibiotics lose efficacy and new ones are not developed, the ability to treat human infections may be hindered. In 2017, FDA policies ended the use of medically important antibiotics for growth promotion in food animals. Antibiotics deemed “currently not medically important” are not used to treat human illnesses and can still be used for animal growth promotion. Other uses of medically important antibiotics in food animal production require veterinarian oversight. These policies follow earlier actions in the European Union (EU) banning medically important antibiotics for growth promotion. Most new antibiotic approvals for food animals have been generic drugs that are also used for humans. Between 1992 and 2015, about 70 percent of antibiotics were considered medically important. This suggests that animal pharmaceutical companies are increasingly developing generic antibiotics for food animals, not new varieties of antibiotics. Although new approvals for non-medically important, non-generic antibiotics for food animals declined, they still averaged about 1.3 per year in 2015. This chart appears in the ERS report, The U.S. and EU Animal Pharmaceutical Industries in the Age of Antibiotic Resistance, released May 2019.

Food insecurity rates vary across States

Friday, May 8, 2020

USDA monitors the extent of food insecurity in U.S. households at the national and State levels through an annual U.S. Census Bureau survey. Food-insecure households are defined as those that had difficulty at some time during the year providing enough food for all of their members due to a lack of resources. Food insecurity rates vary across States because of differing characteristics of the population, State-level policies, and economic conditions. Data for 2016-18 were combined to provide more reliable State statistics than one year alone would provide. The estimated prevalence of food insecurity during 2016-18 ranged from 7.8 percent of the households in New Hampshire to 16.8 percent in New Mexico with a national average of 11.7 percent. In 12 States, the prevalence of food insecurity was higher than the 2016-18 national average, and in 16 States, it was lower than the national average. In the remaining 22 States and the District of Columbia, differences from the national average were not statistically significant. This map appears in the Food Security and Nutrition Assistance section of the Economic Research Service’s Ag and Food Statistics: Charting the Essentials.

Ethanol prices fall as demand contracts

Thursday, May 7, 2020

The Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), first established by the Energy Policy Act of 2005, requires specified volumes of renewable fuels be used to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and expand the nation’s renewable fuels sector. Corn-based ethanol is the primary fuel used to meet the standard. During the last full corn marketing year (2018/19), ethanol accounted for approximately 10 percent of the gasoline consumed in the United States. Over the same period, approximately 5.4 billion bushels of corn, or about 38 percent of total use, were consumed for ethanol. Recently, consumption of gasoline has plummeted due to COVID-19-related travel restrictions, leading to significant declines in both ethanol demand and prices. Although the RFS has ensured that the smaller volumes of gasoline being consumed contain approximately 10 percent ethanol, usage of crude oil at U.S. refineries (U.S. refiner net input of crude oil) fell about 5 percent during March, and consequently, ethanol blending (U.S. refiner and blender net input of fuel ethanol) dropped by approximately 318,000 barrels per day—down 35 percent—over the same period. Ethanol and corn prices have fallen concurrently: at Eastern Corn Belt (ECB) ethanol plants in Illinois, the weekly average price received for gasoline fell about $0.33/gallon (down 26 percent), while the price paid for corn fell about $0.61/bushel (down 15 percent) during March. This chart is drawn from the Economic Research Service’s U.S. Bioenergy Statistics topic page and Feed Outlook for April 2020.

Hog prices fall sharply in April as slaughter capacity is constrained due to COVID-19

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Closures and production slowdowns of several hog-processing facilities beginning in early April due to workforce absences caused by the COVID-19 virus decreased processor demand for hogs, reducing weekly hog slaughter numbers and driving April hog prices (prices paid to hog producers by processors) more than 35 percent below prices in April 2019. As of late April, the closures comprised more than a third of the industry’s processing capacity. At the time of the first plant closing, pork demand was already low, as much of the hotel, restaurant, and institutional sector had been shut down to block transmission of the virus. In 2020, between the weeks ending March 27 and April 24 (weeks 13 and 17 of the calendar year), prices fell $13 per hundredweight (cwt) as plants took measures to protect processing-plant workers from COVID-19, reducing the rates at which hogs were slaughtered. For the week ending April 24 (week 17), live hog prices averaged about $34 per cwt, the second lowest weekly price since November 2016, and significantly below most hog producers’ break-even price. Average prices for the week ending April 24 moved about 5 percent higher from the previous week, likely attributable to rapidly increasing wholesale pork prices (prices received by processors for sales of pork cuts), to which many hog sales transactions are linked. This chart is drawn from ERS’s Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry Monthly Outlook report from April 2020 and is updated using data from USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service.

Milk sales accounted for nearly half of New York’s farm sector cash receipts in 2018

Monday, May 4, 2020

Each August, the Economic Research Service (ERS) produces and publishes estimates of the (farm sector) cash receipts—the cash income the farm sector receives from agricultural commodity sales—from the prior year. These data include State-level estimates, which can help offer background information about States subject to unexpected changes that may affect the agricultural sector, such as the current COVID-19 shelter-in-place restrictions in New York and other States. In 2018, U.S. cash receipts for all commodities totaled $373 billion. New York contributed about 1 percent ($5 billion) of that total, ranking 27th among all States. Receipts from milk accounted for the largest share of cash receipts in New York, at 49 percent ($2.5 billion). The State ranked third in milk cash receipts behind California and Wisconsin, accounting for 7 percent of milk cash receipts nationwide. New York also ranked third in apple cash receipts behind Washington and Michigan, accounting for 9 percent ($262 million) of apple cash receipts nationwide and 5 percent of New York’s total cash receipts. Receipts for corn and cattle/calves each accounted for 7 percent of the State’s total cash receipts. Although contributing a smaller amount to total cash receipts in the State, nationwide New York accounted for 18 percent ($26 million) of maple products receipts, 13 percent ($53 million) of cabbage receipts and 13 percent ($24 million) squash receipts. This chart uses State-level data from the ERS data product Farm Income and Wealth Statistics, updated February 2020.

Labor shortages at critical times can lead growers to leave product in the field or to delay harvesting

Friday, May 1, 2020

Labor is a relatively high share of the cost of growing, harvesting, and packing fresh produce. Labor and harvest comprise nearly half of average total production costs for lettuce and more than one-third for fresh tomatoes, spinach, and peaches. Rising wages and decreasing labor availability may combine to increase the costs to harvest the produce in a field. During times when harvest labor is costly, or if growers encounter a significant shortage of labor in the field, growers may abandon the crop before harvest or make other production and marketing decisions that directly affect levels of food loss. Data are not yet available to determine how agricultural labor production costs or food loss have changed due to the emergence of the global pandemic COVID-19. This chart appears in the article, “Food Loss: Why Food Stays On the Farm or Off the Market,” in the March 2020 issue of the Economic Research Service’s Amber Waves magazine.

COVID-19-related labor force absences in beef packing facilities significantly impact record pace of beef production

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Beef production in the first quarter of 2020 set a first-quarter record. Even as retail demand for beef increased in late March as consumers prepared to shelter in place, the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service reported that beef held in cold storage at the end of March 2020 was 11 percent above last year and 2 percent above the previous month. Since its peak in late March, federally inspected beef production fell almost 32 percent through the week ending April 25 as the rate of cattle slaughter declined at several beef packing facilities. The slowdown in cattle slaughter limited beef production at these facilities where operations temporarily closed or shifts were reduced due to labor force absences caused by the spread of COVID-19. At a time when cattle slaughter numbers increase seasonally, cattle slaughter rates for the week ending April 25 were down 28 percent year-over-year. As the impacts of COVID-19 continue to evolve quickly, the Economic Research Service continues to closely monitor the latest USDA data and industry news. Some of this information is discussed in the Economic Research Service’s Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry Monthly Outlook report from April 2020 and is updated using data from USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service and National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Higher SNAP benefits expand spending on food, and on other goods and services

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

When participants in USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) spend their benefits, the spending “multiplies” throughout the economy because businesses—and their employees—supplying food and other goods purchased by SNAP households receive additional funds to make purchases of their own. In a 2019 study, Economic Research Service (ERS) researchers estimated how a hypothetical $1-billion increase in SNAP benefits in 2016 would have affected spending by SNAP and non-SNAP households. Most SNAP participants spend their own cash in addition to SNAP benefits to purchase adequate food. Thus, SNAP households would spend the full amount of the increased benefits at authorized food stores, but they also would redirect some of the cash that they had been spending on food at home to other goods or services. ERS researchers estimated that the additional SNAP benefits would have the largest effect on SNAP households’ spending on food at home and durable goods. Income is generated for those involved in producing, transporting, and marketing the food and other goods purchased by SNAP recipients, which has a cascading effect of more spending and income. The top categories toward which non-SNAP households would direct this new income were savings, health care, and other services. Because of their low incomes, most SNAP households are likely to spend the entire income increase rather than save a portion of it. These estimates do not take into account current economic conditions and the effect that the COVID-19 pandemic is having on spending behaviors. The data in the chart are part of the analysis found in the ERS report, The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Economy: New Estimates of the SNAP Multiplier, and the Amber Waves article, “Quantifying the Impact of SNAP Benefits on the U.S. Economy and Jobs,” released July 18, 2019.

Broiler processing volumes decrease sharply as plants adjust operations in response to COVID-19

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

The outbreak of COVID-19 among workers in U.S. broiler processing facilities has slowed the processing volumes of broiler chicken meat, which had previously been running at a steadily high pace. Production of broiler meat in the United States in early 2020 reached a record-producing clip, significantly outperforming the same period in 2019. To support this level of production, processing rates (slaughter) had also reached an all-time high, with first-quarter 2020 volumes reaching an average of 169 million birds per week. With the spread of COVID-19, measures to increase social distancing on the production line, as well as plant closures and workforce absenteeism drove down broiler processing volumes to 155 million birds the week ending April 11 and 150 million the week ending April 18. These decreases of 8 percent and 11 percent, respectively, relative to first-quarter average volumes pushed April weekly processing volumes below levels not seen since 2014. The disruption to broiler supplies, however, was preceded by a significant shift in the demand structure for broiler meat wherein demand from food service declined sharply. While much of this demand transferred to the retail sector, it is unlikely that retail is completely making up for the lost food-service demand. Although prices of some cuts have increased from their recent lows as supplies have tightened, wholesale prices for nearly all broiler products since the beginning of April remain weak, suggesting overall broiler supplies continue to outpace demand. Some of this information is discussed in the Economic Research Service Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry Monthly Outlook for March and April 2020 and has been updated using data from the Agricultural Marketing Service.

Forecast for higher solvency ratios in 2020 indicates that more of the farm sector’s assets are financed by credit or debt

Monday, April 27, 2020

Solvency is a measure of the ability of a farm or ranch operation to satisfy its debt obligations when due. Popular measures of solvency include the debt-to-equity ratio, debt-to-asset ratio, and equity-to-asset ratio. Solvency ratios compare the amount of debt relative to equity invested in the farm sector. As a result, these ratios provide a measure of the farm sector’s ability to repay financial liabilities via the sale of assets. The ratios also measure the farm sector’s risk exposure and ability to overcome adverse financial events. The farm sector debt-to-equity and debt-to-asset ratios are expected to continue their slow increases from 2012. The Economic Research Service (ERS) forecasts a debt-to-equity ratio of 15.7 percent in 2020, and a debt-to-asset ratio of 13.6 percent. These higher ratios indicate that more of the farm sector’s assets are financed by credit or debt relative to owner capital (equity). This is the result of farm sector debt growing at a faster rate than farm sector assets. The impact of this year’s shelter-in-place restrictions due to COVID-19 are not reflected in this ERS data. This chart appears in the ERS topic page for Farm Sector Income and Finances.

The foodservice industry accounted for 37 cents of the 2018 U.S. food dollar

Friday, April 24, 2020

In 2018, restaurants and other eating-out places claimed 37.4 cents of the U.S. food dollar—foodservices’ highest share during the 1993 to 2018 period covered by the Economic Research Service’s (ERS’s) Food Dollar Series and the seventh consecutive annual increase. More eating out in 2018 was also reflected in the 12.3-cent retail-trade share claimed by grocery stores and other food retailers, which was at its lowest level in the 1993-2018 period. The only other industry groups that showed an increasing food dollar share in 2018 were farm producers, up 0.3 cents to 8 cents in 2018, and energy industries, such as electric power and natural gas, which increased their share for the third consecutive year, up to 4.2 cents. ERS’s annual Food Dollar Series provides insight into the industries that make up the U.S. food system and their contributions to total U.S. spending on domestically-produced food. ERS uses input-output analysis to calculate the value added, or cost contributions, from 12 industry groups in the food supply chain. Annual shifts in food dollar shares between industry groups occur for a variety of reasons, ranging from the mix of foods that consumers purchase to relative input costs; implications of this year’s COVID-19-related shelter-in-place restrictions will be reflected in the 2020 food dollar. This chart is available for the years 1993 to 2018, and can be found in ERS’s Food Dollar Series data product, updated on March 23, 2020.

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