Nine meals away from anarchy or one pandemic away from a global food system change?

  • Nine meals away from anarchy or one pandemic away from a global food system change? (change_future_photo-by-ross-findon-on-unsplash.jpg)

Image: Ross Findon, Unsplash

March 2020 will always be remembered in the global food industry. COVID-19 outbreak turned everything upside down impacting all the sectors without exceptions.

While foodservice providers have been forced to shut down or pivot solely to take-out and delivery services, packaged food brands and retailers can hardly keep up with the demand of hoarding consumers.

Just when big companies started to finally realize the need for innovation, they now need to reallocate their R&D resources and prioritize the safety of their employees. Small and medium businesses, on the other hand, have to either close their doors or accept change with a "business as usual" attitude and adapt all their processes to the new reality.

This extreme situation represents the disruption we needed in order to see the weaknesses of our food system, where the most efficient logistic operation can fail when people panic. But it also teaches us that suddenly, as if you put a stone in the path of an ant colony, new ways are found to get food to the consumer.


When the direct link to consumers became essential

Food manufacturers have been mapping out their supply chains to identify and mitigate any potential risk as well as reviewing their manufacturing flows to reduce physical contact and keep workers safe. At the same time, consumers’ purchasing behavior is shifting at an unusual pace that requires simultaneous distribution strategy adjustments.

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    Image: Patryk Pastewski, Unsplash

Staple crop production and non-perishable food brands have seen a spike in demand comparable to what they would observe in case of a natural disaster or during the Christmas period.

However, fresh food and more specialized, higher-value crop producers that mainly sell to restaurants or at farmers' markets experience a fall in demand. They are also at high risk of losing extreme amounts of food due to the lack of available properly trained workers.

Solutions and technologies that can preserve fresh produce or turn expired fruit, vegetables and dairy products into food aid that then can be shipped internationally to countries in need will gain more traction.

Packaging producers will need to adjust their products for e-commerce distribution and protect perishable products from spoilage and potential damage during delivery. And eventually, companies that are able to produce alternative forms of packaging made from upcycled waste will come out on top.


When supermarket shelves turned into the live stream of government bans

Today, one in every five calories people consume crosses at least one international border. This being said, as countries like Russia, Vietnam or Kazakhstan decide to restrict the export of staple cereals, we can expect global price escalation.

Trade halts will lead to higher domestic supply pushing the prices down and depressing the livelihood of farmers. On the contrary, countries that rely on the import of these commodities will face increasing prices, throwing people into a situation of food insecurity.

The recent Chinese pork production drop pushed global prices higher. While local producers could benefit from the average 35% price increase, once consumers noticed the price increase, they turned towards other protein sources.

In order to preserve the single market operation, ensure a smooth supply of essential goods and thus guarantee the food security of citizens, the green lane border crossing was designed by the European Commission.

Neighbouring non-EU countries are invited to work closely with this network to ensure the flow of goods in all directions.

Similar supporting policies and law relaxations would be needed to allow collaboration and ease access to labor markets while also ensuring fair and safe work conditions. The upcoming harvest and spring sowing season are under threat due to border closures. Germany alone is lacking 300 000 workers.

“You cannot miss harvest and you cannot harvest what has not been planted,” said Julia Klöckner, the German Federal Minister for Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection, at a recent press conference.

The lack of low-cost mobile labor from Eastern Europe could reduce overall agricultural yield, and lead to a shortage of domestic fruit and vegetable supply, therefore potentially limiting the demand for agricultural sector products, eroding consumer surplus and ultimately causing sector revenue to decline.

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    Photo: Wesley Tingey, Unsplash

We see new collaborations being born daily to work towards a shared vision: sustain and maintain food supplies. Land Arbeit or another website created by the German government are platforms to connect farmers lacking workforce with people who are currently out of jobs.

Flexible work and the cross-sectoral move of labor could create short-term jobs to decrease unemployment and maintain agricultural production at the same time.


When just-in-time transformed into waitlists overnight

The announcement of the pandemic followed by social distancing rules showed us the fragility of the just-in-time system our modern supply chains rely on.

According to Mintel’s latest data (consumers questioned on 13th March), some 10% of UK shoppers stockpiled goods. 10% might be a minority, but when they start panic-buying it places a significant strain on stock and logistic networks.

Online demand skyrocketed finding the channel unprepared. Pre-coronavirus stats showed that only a small percentage of groceries was purchased online (2018 online grocery channel share UK 6% France 4.5% Spain 0.7% Germany 0.5%).

The main deterrent force was the delivery fee followed by concerns about the freshness and quality of food. This is very likely to change permanently now because consumers’ fear of getting a bad tomato is not as great as their fear of contracting COVID-19.

Within a month online grocery orders doubled, the channel reached a 500% increase in the new user registration which forced some service providers to take down their online ordering platform to process orders first. Major retailers’ delivery slots are booked out two weeks in advance.

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    Photo: Pineapple Supply Co., Unsplash

An online-only supermarket Picnic had to extend the usual one-day delivery to a week and limit it to existing customers while new customers land on the waiting list next to 70 000 other households.

Massive manpower and investment would be needed in order to quickly evolve and adjust the home delivery sector to the new reality. Foodservice can ease the pressure on retail by turning some of the outlets into ready-meal stores. Smaller outlets face a greater impact as their supplies are not as regular and they do not have the infrastructure for delivery services.

Nevertheless, we can see grassroots movements connecting multiple shops to supply their community with products of an average shopping basket.

“Every brand right now is in the business of being a public service.” (Nicholas Fereday, Executive Director, Food & Consumer Trends at Rabobank)

Companies started to offer various kinds of support for healthcare workers, wave delivery fees, developed contactless delivery, allow consumers to donate or purchase vouchers and enable communities to bond.

A free shopping list app Bring developed a shared shopping list functionality helping their users to shop for elderly neighbors. The UK government provides a database for supermarkets to help prioritizing deliveries for the vulnerable.

While schools are closing down, millions of children miss out on their school meals which for many of them is a critical source of nutrition.

FeedmyBangalore is a partnership of corporates and startups supporting the countless families of daily wage workers who are going hungry during the 21-day lockdown in India.


When eggs became the best performing asset and overtook gold

David Chang, chef and founder of Momofuku Noodle Bar and producer of Ugly Delicious TV Series said in his interview for The New York Times: “People don’t even know where their food comes from, and that is a metaphor for a lot of our problems.”

Consumers do not believe that products will be available long term. This explains the continued stockpiling and panic buying. But there is actually enough capacity in the system for all if everybody stays calm and stops hoarding.

Over the last weeks, we witnessed the sales of prepared meals and non-perishable food products going through the roof. Canned goods and pasta were all the rage. Then suddenly people discovered the kitchen in their homes and the newfound time available for cooking.

The longer the isolation is, the more the demand will shift from toilet paper and pasta to flour, yeast, eggs and fresh produce. Americans seemed to worry first about having enough eggs to color for Easter. In the last week of March, sales were 80% higher than a year ago and prices tripled compared to the beginning of the month.

As fruits and vegetables with high vitamin C content are the most sought after, orange sales are reportedly up 60% year-over-year.

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    Photo: Wesley Tingey, Unsplash

In order to ensure that all consumers have access to key items, supermarkets need to consider enforced limits of certain product lines or introduce dedicated shopping hours and priority delivery slots to supply the older age groups.

Due to income loss or the fear of it, consumers started to move away from premium items and are less likely to purchase organic, sustainable and ethically sourced products. Notwithstanding, the demand for "comfort" products such as ice cream and yogurt will remain high.

Slow Food has been trying over 30 years to bring farmers closer to consumers. COVID-19 needed only a few days. The more self-sufficient and local a food brand is, the more comfortable people might feel. Consumers started to opt for smaller stores closer to their homes and shop more local, as they began to shift value to the source and distribution of their food and beverages.


When resilience was put along with efficiency

Our modern society and the systems it relies on are fragile and constitutionally vulnerable. Are we at the tipping point of our food system? Will the #supportyourlocal solidarity stay after the pandemic? Will restaurants continue to be community centers? Will delivery become the norm?

It's all up to how we act now when we are given an opportunity to change the existing system.

In order to create resilient systems, we need to change current business models to and break up the silos we operate in. Transformative policies are required to push the industry from productivity and yield towards diversity. The nature of coopetition must evolve where competitors engage in common innovation spaces.

Well-functioning agricultural systems must be constructed collectively. Intergovernmental cooperation has to necessitate more redundancies and promote a greater degree of regional self-sufficiency.

Working with larger inventories and buffers built in this system can prevent countries from taking the ill-considered measures. Because how can we expect consumers not to panic-buy when their governments panic-bans exports?

Data enables prediction that empowers our decision-making process. It strengthens resilient food production and distribution, impacts conscious eaters' choices and can radically decrease resource depletion.

More effective data usage will allow us to design for transparency and trust and build a conscious consumer society that is less driven by convenience. Because the sustainable equation of wealth for the long term is reliable information and global solidarity.

About the author

About Júlia Dalmadi (jd_profile.jpg)

Júlia Dalmadi

Júlia Dalmadi is a Food Futurist with digital and food innovation expertise and proven track record in project management and concept development. Equipped with human-centered design and system thinking, plus a global network of food protagonists Júlia's vision is to engage, cross-pollinate, and build the sustainable future of our food system.

Since her Food Innovation Masters, she has been active as the Ambassador of the Future Food Institute, designing and facilitating multiple educational projects.

Currently, Júlia is working on the Climate Shaper Bootcamps, their joint project with FAO. In her free time, she is engaged in the opening of SuperCoop, the first member-only cooperative supermarket in Berlin, and building a circular economy startup in her home country, Hungary.

The NX-Food visual branding and website are developed by dombek—bolay and Naasner Office, in close collaboration with the NX-Food team.