Projects underway as a rapid response to the coronavirus pandemic and its impacts on the interconnected systems of agriculture, food, and the environment.

The Request for Proposals

In late March 2020, SAFES released a request for proposals from researchers in the College of Agricultural Sciences (CAS) to initiate discussions and stimulate research activity as a rapid response to the emerging and potential impacts of COVID-19 on agricultural, food, and environmental systems. Investigating the vulnerabilities of these complex and interconnected systems requires the coordination of teams able to integrate natural and social science disciplines with technological advancements, human behavior, economics, and policy among other factors.

SAFES is creating a novel environment to accelerate holistic inquiries and comprehensive solutions by connecting our researchers into the diverse landscape of resources provided at Penn State. The current coronavirus pandemic presents especially sweeping, interconnected challenges facing the nation and the world, including but not limited to the following:

  • agricultural production practices
  • ecosystem services
  • supply chains
  • food security
  • labor
  • environmental impacts

In coordination with the CAS Office for Research and Graduate Education, these short-term grants of up to $25,000 are intended to support the formation of research initiatives addressing these impacts and to competitively position the teams to pursue large-scale extramural grant submissions.

Awarded Projects

Pennsylvania Agricultural Resilience Network (PARN)

Patrick Drohan, PI

Food system resiliency is threatened by bottlenecks in our food supply chain, particularly with respect to harvest, processing and transportation. Recent fluctuations in commodity prices and production inefficiencies have had a particularly strong impact on Pennsylvania's (PA) small producers, dairies, and farmworkers, which lack the cash flow to withstand these disturbances. The goal of this project is to rapidly scale-up an open source platform that connects producers, suppliers, manufacturers, and workers along PA's food supply chain, thus minimizing bottlenecks. This platform can reach a diverse group of stakeholders to provide urgently needed support now, while also building infrastructure for a more resilient regional food economy over the long term.

COVID-19 and Resilient Food Supply Chains

David Abler, PI (co-funded by Institute for Computational and Data Sciences)

COVID-19 has dramatically altered food supply chains in the United States, with disruptions to food production, processing, transport, and retail. Food distributors and retailers in recent years have focused on making their supply chains efficient, which has been accomplished in part by reducing inventory levels at each stage of the chain, and by managing truck fleet sizes to minimize unused cargo space on each truck trip. As a result, they have not yet been able to respond to the COVID-19 shifts in consumer demand, with some surging and others plummeting. This team will create a platform at Penn State for research on food supply chain resiliency, examining not only resiliency on its own terms but also how resiliency interacts with efficiency and sustainability in food supply chains. The first outcome of the project will be a multilayer network model with improved capabilities to better characterize the complexity of food supply chains in the United States. The second outcome will be the initial creation of a platform linking the multilayer network model with a spatially explicit food and agricultural markets model. This will result in a unique and powerful simulation tool to explore and inform food supply chain disruptions associated with COVID-19 and other catastrophic events.

Twitter/Google Trends Analysis of Food Security Under COVID-19

Stephan Goetz, PI

COVID-19 has forced people to isolate, causing dramatic increases in online activity and providing clues about real-time preoccupations of those using these media. Signals readily available to researchers include information about what people are searching for (Google Trends) and what they are saying and sharing with others in microblogs (Twitter). Obtaining such data through automated processes, situating it with other publicly available data, and providing a visual analytics interface to perform sense-making on the data offer insights into local conditions related to the food system in different states (including rural areas of the nation), from state by state (and major metro area) consumer search patterns. The team will examine how these can be used to forecast shortages in real time in different parts of the country, as well as emerging problems, for example, with shortage at Food Banks. This analysis will be complemented with analysis of changing consumer sentiments over time in different communities, related to food availability and quality. From the lessons learned, recommendations can then be made to facilitate interventions by governmental organizations, which could be rapidly deployed to address food shortages, and other related problems, should a similar scenario happen again.

Impacts of COVID-19 on Beneficial Reuse Water and Compost Quality: Potential Agricultural and Environmental Health Impacts

Heather Preisendanz, PI

With the vast majority of people staying home for prolonged periods of time, domestic wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) are experiencing changes in flow patterns. Furthermore, there is growing evidence that the novel coronavirus is shed through feces and enters the wastewater stream. With virus testing currently lacking in most communities, monitoring for presence of the virus at WWTPs may help to understand how widespread the disease is within a community and to prepare for a resurgence of the disease when stay-at-home orders are relaxed. The team will partner with the Penn State WWTP and the University Area Joint Authority WWTP to evaluate the potential for local population assessment of coronavirus presence over time by using coronavirus detection in wastewater influent as a proxy for infection counts and to study the fate, transport, and potential agricultural and environmental impacts of pharmaceuticals known to be associated with diagnosis and/or treatment of COVID-19. This research will enable a better understanding of the level of local infection as widespread testing continues to remain unavailable, providing information for local planners and the University as they plan for the upcoming Fall and Spring semesters.

How Fast Can We Develop an Agricultural Decision Support System to Assess the Impact of COVID-19 on Crop Production in Pennsylvania?

Yuning Shi, PI

COVID-19 has significantly impacted food production with labor shortages leading to delays in planting; government- imposed restrictions on labor and goods mobility affecting agrochemical logistic and limiting access to inputs, as well as limiting access to markets. In order to quantitatively estimate the potential impact on crop production, to provide timely information for decision-makers for COVID-19 response and to prepare for future crises, the team will combine the strength of a geospatial data portal, a process-based agroecosystem model, and expert knowledge to demonstrate an agricultural decision support system to create a nimble system to explore the impact of COVID-19 on commodity production and environmental outcomes that can help policy makers and stakeholders conceive interventions. This system will be demonstrated at Sugar Valley, PA (Clinton County), a 3 by 30 km oblong (east-west) limestone valley surrounded by sandstone mountains with forested hillsides and agriculture in the valley and foothills.

Rapid Reduction of Farm Milk Production in Response to Crisis

Chad Dechow, PI (co-funded by Penn State Extension)

Lost dairy sales are expected to range from $5 to $10 billion this year due to the COVID-19 crisis. In response to a substantial milk oversupply, National Milk Producers Federation is requesting that all farms reduce milk production by 10% through September. Unfortunately, most mechanisms to reduce on-farm milk yield or labor in response to a local or worldwide crisis are untested and perceived as carrying substantial risk. This project will develop a decision-making tool to project short- and medium-term milk production, revenue, and cost of production in response to changes implemented to rapidly reduce milk production. New genetic tools and traits related to transition cow health are recently available to help researchers to evaluate those traits, cow age, udder health indicators, and performance in existing data to determine profiles of cows that are able to withstand extended dry periods to mitigate cow health risks. Strategies will be tested at the Penn State dairy farm to evaluate impacts of extended dry periods on the cow's health. As an integrated research and extension project with matching funds from Penn State Extension, the team will also develop training programs in English and Spanish to remotely train farm personnel in a variety of critical farm practices, such as milking routine and calving management practices.

The impact of COVID-19 on consumers' attitudes towards local food and the environment

Martina Vecchi, PI

Some of the most tangible shifts caused by the pandemic are taking place in the food system: how consumers buy their food, the type they buy and where they buy it. We do not know the extent of the impact of the pandemic on people's attitudes towards local farmers and the environment. Producer interest groups question whether consumers will still support local farmers and their community once restrictions will be lifted. Is the increase we observe in sales of organic and local products driven by a change in attitudes, or does it depend solely on the need of purchasing products in the most efficient way? Could a focus on the community, in contrast to a focus on the individual and on personal concerns, change some consumer's attitudes? To address these questions, the team will conduct an online survey with 1,000 participants, also collecting some demographics of the sample (age, area where they live and occupational status) in order to analyze the heterogeneous impact across participants.

COVID Health Compass: A Framework for the interconnectedness between food security, co- morbidity, and income in vulnerable communities

Nicole Webster, PI

The outbreak of COVID-19 has revealed a stunning disparity in the infection and mortality rates among different socioeconomic groups in the US primarily but also in much of the rest of the world. As a global pandemic, it provides a stunning example of how disparities related to race, health, and income can manifest in death rates for positive cases, disproportionately impacting food and labor supplies. Given the interconnectedness of race, health, and income on communities and food systems the interdisciplinary research team will build a framework to understand how to mitigate the impact of COVID on food systems in communities where the socioeconomic factors, access to nutritious foods through grocery stores, and co-morbidity factors are at most risk. The COVID Health Compass Framework will provide community and county-wide or ZIP code-wide data on the interconnectedness between social and economic variables that impact food access and security in vulnerable communities. The health framework recognizes the complexity of issues facing the health of vulnerable communities and provides a broad perspective to identify and address factors affecting health outcomes when pandemics and other disruptions impact these communities. The premise is that food security improvement cannot be focused solely on individuals, or families, or communities; but must involve many sectors - such as health, social service, and the economy to affect change.

Quantifying the impacts of COVID-19 on farmers' decisions to manage for soil health in Pennsylvania

Sharifa Crandall, PI

Understanding farmers' capacity to manage for soil health is vital to maintain crop yields and to ensure food security in the long-term. Recently, an increasing number of growers are moving toward implementing sustainable soil management practices. It is unclear, however, the extent to which farmers decide to use sustainable soil management practices will be impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The team will will conduct a remotely administered Soil Health Farmer Survey (online/mail) on soil management practices in partnership with the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) to quantify the extent to which the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has affected and will continue to influence the capacity of farmers to implement best soil management practices and maintain soil health. This survey will ask in-depth questions about estimates for crop productivity, land-use history, planned future management strategies, and decisions about soil health management practices with a special focus on quantifying the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Assessing Factors Affecting Farmers’ Stress and Developing Stress Resilience Skills

Suzanna Windon, PI

Psychologically and physically, farming has been described as one of the most stressful occupations.The COVID-19 outbreak adds new uncertainties to farming on top of other stress factors in most sectors of agriculture. The literature on stress among farmers has primarily focused on on-farm factors, agricultural market factors, and government regulation. There have been no studies to date that looked at the relationship between farmers’ stress and farmers’ stress from uncertainty factors such as the COVID-19 pandemic. This team will explore the relationships between farmers’ stress and external off-farm factors, on-farm factors, personal factors, uncertainty factors, infectious disease outbreaks-such as COVID-19- related factors, and demographics in order to address the knowledge gap in understanding of factors that affect farmers’ stress and how the new uncertainty factors as the current COVID-19 pandemic factors differ from other stress factors.