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The Pandemic of 2020 – Food System Change Drivers and Lessons Learned So Far

September 21, 2020

Global Systems Not Prepared for a Pandemic Event

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a worldwide health and economic crisis. As the virus has progressed, we have become aware of at least three key lessons learned.

1. Healthcare Workers & First Responders are Critical

Healthcare workers and first responders are critical under normal situations, but a deadly health event highlights how important they are, putting themselves at risk every day to care for the sick. They must be protected.

2. Crisis Management Plans Must Be Built & Implemented

Crisis management plans are important but must be implemented and maintained for all operations. In evaluation of our preparedness for the current pandemic event, we have learned in many cases that crisis plans were in place but not followed. The 2015 pre-pandemic plan for New York State is such an example. The plan called for a stockpile of 16,000 ventilators and other personal protection equipment (PPE) in the event of a possible terrorist or pandemic event. The New York Post reported that equipment was not purchased, however, leaving state and federal authorities scrambling to provide critical equipment and facilities during the current event. Will there be another pandemic? The short answer is yes!

Take a look at the last 7 major events. These events are usually designated as “black swan” events, which are random, unexpected and have significant catastrophic ramifications if they occur.

3. Our Global Food System is Vulnerable

Disruptions from the current pandemic have awakened us to the fact that our global food system is far more vulnerable than we imagined and emerging negative impacts like food insecurity and malnutrition are major concerns. We now know that our food supply is essential to surviving and recovering from the current pandemic. In fact, the protection of our food system from a terrorist attack or other catastrophic event has been designated as a critical infrastructure under Homeland Security Presidential Directive #9 (HSPD9).

How many food companies have risk management plans in place for their supply chains, which include a crisis management component for a pandemic or terrorism event? My guess – not many!

Consumer Sustainability Concerns Emerge from the Pandemic

estimated deaths chart from pandemicsIn a post COVID-19 world, moving to a sustainable, regenerative and resilient global food supply system will be critical. The novel coronavirus pandemic has made us realize that “business-as-usual” is no longer an option.

It is estimated that we need to increase our food supply by 60% by 2050 to provide enough food to meet the needs of a global population that will have grown to an estimated 10 billion people. Current mass production agricultural practices, in many cases are not sustainable. We should transition to regenerative practices that support the health of people, animals and the environment.

A new survey by Kearney, a global independent consulting firm, showed that nearly 50% of consumers say the pandemic has made them even more concerned about the environment. Transitioning to a regenerative agriculture solution will be critical to meet the global food security and nutritional requirements of the future. Resilient, regenerative agriculture systems of the future will increase biodiversity, restore soil health, effectively use energy and water, and respect social and community issues, among other things. By implementing sustainable agricultural practices, more is restored and returned to the environment and communities than is removed.

What are a few key problems to scaling regenerative agriculture?

1. Current Public Agriculture Policy

Current public agriculture policy supports intensive farming systems over regenerative options.

2. Lack of Awareness

In most cases, food companies are not aware of the environmental impact of the farming practices being used to produce their food products all the way back to the farm.

3. Consumer Demand

In the past, consumer demand for regeneratively produced food products has not been sufficient to generate a move to regenerative agriculture.

4. Financing

Financing the transition from current farming systems to regenerative agriculture has not been supported.

All of these are transforming and will drive change to a more resilient food system.

Consumer Food Habits Change

Food habits chartConsumers are reacting to the crisis in several ways. An increase in panic buying for critical food and hygiene products led to empty shelves for others as most grocery stores operate on a 3-day inventory basis, causing a ripple effect for demand on our food system. A recent survey by the International Food and Information Council found that 85% of food consumers have changed their food habits, driving them to cook, eat, shop and think about food differently. About 60% said they are cooking at home more. Consumers want to trust that their food is safe, available, how it was made and where it comes from.

Consumer expectations are even more important today and they are evolving.

Consumers want their food to be safe and free from contaminants. The current pandemic has proved that a strong immunity is critical to surviving the virus. Food should not only taste good and be nutritious, but, if possible, help boost the resiliency of the immune system. They want “sustainably sourced” claims supported by independent third-party verification back to the farm showing the environmental impact of their products. Finally, the companies they buy from should be purpose driven and do more for the environment, people and community.

What Now?

Expectations chartThere will be more catastrophic events, both large and small. Food companies have an opportunity to reduce business interruption and damage to their brand identity by assessing their current risk and creating continuous improvement plans that ensure effective strategies are in place for their entire agricultural supply network – from farm to fork!

The graphic at right shows how our food system is interconnected. Food product life cycle assessments (LCA) should be used to identify where resiliency of the system is in question. Once supply network vulnerabilities have been identified; corrective plans can be developed and implemented.

Food and agriculture companies have a unique opportunity to lead the change to a more regenerative, resilient and sustainable food system. Many companies have developed environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals for their owned and controlled assets but have neglected to look at the environmental impact of their products on a farm to fork basis. What to do? It starts with an honest transparent assessment of the current farming practices employed to produce their products.

Senior food company managers should be asking questions like:

  • Have we set goals that are independently verified by a third party for water, energy, biodiversity, soil health, animal welfare, social, etc.?
  • How much water did it take to produce a million dollars of our sales last year?
  • How much carbon was emitted and sequestered in creating our products through their full life cycle (farm to fork)?
  • Do our farmer-partners use regenerative farming practices?
  • Have we had a third party develop the on-farm environmental impact metrics for our products?
  • Were our farmer-partners able to make a living wage?
  • How do we help our farmer-partners transition to regenerative agriculture practices?

Rick Shanks, ARM, is Chief Sustainability Advisor for Sustainable Environmental Consultants, a leader in providing innovative environmental solutions including risk management services through its EcoPractices platform. Bringing extensive risk management experience, he is responsible for identifying areas of opportunity and providing insight into food system and agribusiness operations and developing sustainability risk reduction solutions. Reach Rick at [email protected].

Schedule an Assessment

An initial assessment will provide the necessary information to help food and agriculture companies prepare a new or modified corporate supply chain sustainability performance plan. If you would like more information, take a look at our Sustainability risk management services, powered by our EcoPractices platform.

About Sustainable Environmental Consultants

Established in 2008, Sustainable Environmental Consultants is part of the Wright Service Corp. employee-owned family of companies. Since its inception, SEC has endeavored to be a leader in providing innovative solutions to better the planet through sustainability risk management, third-party data reporting and verification, and agricultural compliance and engineering. We provide a full range of environmental services needed by food companies and their agriculture supply systems. To learn more, visit