Special Report: COVID-19 Is The Pandemic We Worried About

For years, the Food Foresight panel – and scientists and health professionals across the globe – warned it would happen: a pandemic capable of bringing the health of people and economies worldwide to their knees. COVID-19 has been the shock we worried about, and in its midst arise questions from fearful consumers about the global food system and its preparedness to provide safe, healthy and affordable food when we need it most.

Panic shopping is leaving grocery store shelves empty, and online shopping is no longer fruitful, prompting Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue to issue a reassurance to Americans the “food supply is safe, healthy and sound.” The nation’s biggest retailers, dairy farmers, meat producers and others in the supply chain agree, telling the public they can expect replenishments soon, as the food system once positioned as “too big” and “too industrial” is being called upon to be the hero restocking shelves and showcasing food availability is not in question. When the dust settles, how the food system performs now can pave way for greater acceptance of a more diversified food system – consisting of both small and large players – with scale and responsiveness needed in times like these.

“This is a massive sociological experiment, getting underway with virtually no planning, no guidelines, and certainly nothing like a ‘control group’ to help establish what works and what doesn’t,” said Food Foresight panelist and sociologist Larry Kaagan.

While there is an obvious void for food and agriculture companies to fill in the marketplace, prompting reworking of distribution systems and ramping up infrastructures to deliver food at a faster than usual pace, it’s near business as usual on the farms, ranches and processing facilities that run at breakneck speed all year long. No social distancing or work from home options for the men and women providing an essential service – producing food.

All this against a backdrop representing a convergence of trends covered by Food Foresight through the years. Consider these items, building off previous years’ trends:

  • Trust among the American public has been on a steady decline, and there is a sense it is continuing its downward path amid the crisis. Conflicting media accounts early on – even from the highest levels of government – about the severity of the crisis, real and projected shortfalls of our health care system and widely disparate guidelines issued by state and municipalities have people wondering: who can you trust?
  • While the agri-food marketplace will always be somewhat dependent on the abilities of people, its continual move toward mechanization and automation can be part of the solution in an environment where people are instructed to stay at least six feet away from each other. These technology solutions in place on farms, packhouses, warehouses, and retail stores have been on a steady increase, and provide evermore relevancy today. Driverless cars and trucks don’t seem so scary after all, and technologies that improve systems could be increasingly welcome.
  • Food banks, viewed as a critical safety net for those in need, will soon have a much-expanded clientele, as would-be workers have their hours slashed and jobs cut. Those living paycheck to paycheck are now wondering not only whether the shelves will be restocked, but whether there is money in their pocketbook to buy what they need. Food banks are also seeing a diminishing volunteer force, as retirees and college students, who have long been primary groups of volunteers, have been scattered or urged to shelter themselves. Furthermore, school administrators across the country are scrambling to ensure the millions of children who receive free school breakfasts and lunches receive the nourishment they need, as the number of school closures grows by the day. The situation at hand draws attention to the critical nature of these programs now and in the future.
  • The foodservice industry is fundamentally falling apart, as people are being asked to shelter in place and avoid public gatherings. Restaurants are shutting their doors or offering to-go or delivery only meals, often at the direction of local governments. Staff head counts are down, and those left without a paycheck or tips may soon be joining the line at the food bank. What seemed important yesterday – plastic straws, the Instagram effect and more – seems trivial at a time when survival is what is at stake. For some, their doors may shut permanently. For others, recovery will be slow and painful.
  • For many small and medium sized business owners and workers striving for the American Dream, the path forward seems closed. Even as the government builds relief packages, there is a sense the relief may not be enough to overcome such wide-scale economic damage. The divide between the haves and have nots is growing by the minute and COVID-19 could be the nail in the coffin of the American Dream as we know it.
  • Closed borders to the north and south – while an important step in protecting public health – also mean an end to transient seasonal workers, who are still needed to bring food to market. The nationalism that was already dominating our country and others has grown into further protectionism and there could be unintended consequences as a result.
  • Despite reports that all is well with the food system, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced it is scaling back Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) inspections and waiving certain FSMA requirements in the face of the COVID-19 crisis. While the FDA has said it won’t scale back audits of the leafy greens sector still suffering from a black eye from recent outbreaks, questions of safety will remain as looser reins for some areas will be in juxtaposition to trying to convince the public that food is safe.
  • Long term, some are asking what foods can be eaten to better boost immunity and support overall health. When panic shopping subsides, foods that aid in immunity may get a closer eye.

The 2020 Food Foresight report was in draft form when COVID-19 began getting significant attention. To some extent, all the trends outlined are no longer what they were even a few short weeks ago. The world is no longer what it was a few short weeks ago. But in this time of uncertainty and turmoil, the agri-food system remains more important that ever. Our Food Foresight partners have an opportunity to step up to the plate and demonstrate the important role of American agriculture now and always.

Food Foresight is a trends intelligence system that helps partners prepare for change. A 27-year collaboration between Nuffer, Smith, Tucker and the California Institute of Food and Agricultural Research at University of California, Davis, Food Foresight provides opportunities to help anticipate, shape and even manage change.