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Commentary: COVID-19 leaves no part of food system untouched

Issue Date: April 22, 2020
By Kerry Tucker and Teresa Siles
Kerry Tucker
Teresa Siles
Shoppers wait in line outside a New York City grocery store. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought new attention to the importance of the food chain.

It's hard to imagine without seeing it: people standing in lines around the block, their faces covered, anxiously waiting to enter the grocery store to buy staples such as pasta, shelf-stable vegetables, meat, dairy and, of course, toilet paper.

At the same time, thousands of pounds of milk are being dumped and eggs cracked, and fields are being plowed, as markets disappear almost overnight. All this, while cars wait for miles at food banks as millions now out of work struggle to put food on the table.

This is the new reality of COVID-19, the pandemic that our Food Foresight panel, along with scientists and health professionals across the globe, warned about. Food Foresight is a collaboration between Nuffer, Smith, Tucker and the California Institute of Food and Agricultural Research at the University of California, Davis, that helps partners prepare for change.

While distribution systems and infrastructures are being ramped up to deliver food at a faster than usual pace, farmers and processors are dealing with the new realities of farming and production that include additional needs to keep workers safe and account for social distancing.

When the dust settles, how the food system performs now can pave the 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.

All this occurs amid a convergence of trends identified by Food Foresight through the years. Consider these items:

  • Trust among the American public has been on a steady decline, and there is a sense it is continuing a downward path amid the crisis. Conflicting media accounts early on about the severity of the crisis, real and projected shortfalls of our health care system and widely disparate guidelines issued by states and municipalities have people wondering: Who can you trust?
  • The continual move toward mechanization and automation can be part of the solution in an environment where people are instructed to stay at least 6 feet away from each other. These dirt-to-the-store technology solutions are increasingly relevant.
  • Food banks, viewed as a critical safety net for those in need, have a much-expanded clientele but are also seeing a diminishing volunteer force. Furthermore, school administrators across the country are scrambling to ensure that millions of children who normally receive school lunches or breakfasts receive the nourishment they need, as school closures are likely to last until the fall.
  • The food-service sector is fundamentally falling apart, as people are being asked to shelter in place. Large farmers continue to discard millions of pounds of fresh food that restaurants, hotels and schools no longer need. Restaurants are shuttering their doors or offering to-go or delivery-only meals, often at the direction of local governments.
  • 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.
  • Field laborers, many of them migrant workers, are now considered essential and are being hailed as heroes, positioning that may help in the ongoing debate around immigration.
  • The Food and Drug Administration announced it is waiving certain Food Safety Modernization Act 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, 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.
  • After years of a down farm economy, farmers are now facing an even more harsh reality. Dairy prices, corn futures, soybean futures and the prices paid to cattle farmers, among other indices, have all dropped sharply.
  • 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. It remains to be seen whether the longer-term trends it identified will be fundamentally altered by the pandemic.

But one thing is clear: In this time of uncertainty and turmoil, the agri-food system remains more important than ever, as does the relevancy of those holding a stake in anticipating, managing, even shaping food systems of the future.

(Kerry Tucker is chief strategic counsel and Teresa Siles is president, both of Nuffer, Smith, Tucker Inc. in San Diego.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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