Written by Riyana Razalee
When news of the coronavirus spreading in China first broke out, stories about people stocking up on their groceries and panic buying seemed slightly foreign to many people across the world. While everyone could understand the situation, many could not quite envision it – until it hit our shores here in the US. It was then that we began to see the effects of a constrained food supply chain, brought to light by the coronavirus.
Overdependence on food imports
Under normal circumstances, if there is ever a shortage in the food supply chain, the US can rely on imports in order to fill the demand gap. In fact, the US is known for importing a significant amount of its fruits and vegetables from overseas. According to the FDA, “More than 200 countries or territories and roughly 125,000 food facilities plus farms supply approximately 32% of the fresh vegetables [and] 55% of the fresh fruit that Americans consume annually.” During this pandemic however, the import option has been eliminated. One by one, we began to see ports across the world close, whether it was in Honduras or Guatemala, where a bulk of the US’ imported coffee goes through, or Kazakhstan, one of the world's biggest wheat flour exporters. It therefore came as no surprise that the US government deemed agriculture labor as an “essential worker” in order to accommodate the food supply needs of the country.
“More than 200 countries or territories and roughly 125,000 food facilities plus farms supply approximately 32% of the fresh vegetables [and] 55% of the fresh fruit that Americans consume annually. During this pandemic however, the import option has been eliminated."
Shifting consumer behaviour
When it comes to consumers, the end of a “linear” food supply chain, two things happened when the coronavirus hit. Firstly, many consumers started to pay more attention to their health once more, thereby assessing the food that they were consuming. Secondly, consumers started looking at their finances more closely due to the financial uncertainties that come with the pandemic. With these two factors in play, it should be expected that there will be a shift in consumer behaviour. As Erica Carranza, VP of Consumer Psychology at Chadwick Martin Baily explains, although habits that drive consumption behaviour are generally difficult to change, when something as monumental as a pandemic happens, causing negative emotions, it could shift consumer behaviour. Michael Barbera, Chief Behaviour Officer of Clicksituation Labs also notes that as consumers are reminded by the CDC and World Health Organization about the necessity of proper handwashing, consumers are likely to move towards healthier lifestyles, which includes sustainable and healthier food products. The results therefore are twofold: (1) Attention will be placed on the nutrition value of what they are consuming, (2) There may be even less reliance on restaurants as consumers choose to cook more in order to save on unnecessary expenses.
"Although habits that drive consumption behaviour are generally difficult to change, when something as monumental as a pandemic happens, causing negative emotions, it could shift consumer behaviour."
Using the coronavirus to fix the food supply chain
Firstly, we need to move away from the idea that a food supply chain is linear and instead approach it from a closed-loop perspective. By the time the food gets to the consumer, we need to understand how to recover useful resources from the food that is disposed, or any of its by-products. Next, we need to strengthen local production of food. The coronavirus has shown us the fragility of reliance on food supply chains that span across the globe. While there are certainly benefits to food trading, this cannot be our main source of supply anymore. Lastly, we need to find ways to provide nutritious food that is accessible for all. This is where communication across various players along the food supply chain, as well as innovation and collaboration comes in.
As Rahul Bhansali, COO of Re-Nuble explains, "Indoor farming methods like hydroponics are basically superfactories of food production, using 13X less water, producing 11X more food per square foot, and producing year round, almost completely independent of weather patterns. The problem has generally been that these farms are expensive to build and operate. By cutting their costs and selling more profitable organic food, indoor farms can become significantly more financially viable and scalable within the food supply chain. We can decentralize food production reliably and powerfully and make pure, nutritious foods just miles from need. That equals a food supply resiliency like never before, to protect us from systemic risks like those uncovered by COVID."
"We can decentralize food production reliably and powerfully and make pure, nutritious foods just miles from need. That equals a food supply resiliency like never before, to protect us from systemic risks like those uncovered by COVID" - Rahul Bhansali, COO, Re-Nuble
For Re-Nuble, we have made it our mission to sustainably manage our local communities’ food waste streams. By transforming food waste into plant-based technologies for both soil based and hydroponic cultivation, we strive to play a part in the solution by enabling closed loop food once again, and making nutritious food accessible for all. Can we help you strengthen your position in the food supply chain? We'd love to explore this further.