What Past Pandemics Teach Us About the Future of Food and Agriculture
When the pandemic began last year, our team spent months researching and monitoring the coronavirus situation to better understand the implications on the food and agriculture industry. We worked to identify the areas of innovation critical to building a healthier and more sustainable food system, and those areas that would be most impacted by the pandemic.
One year later, it felt time to reassess. We wanted to learn from the past, apply our learnings to Covid-19, and then discern two things – what elements of this are cyclical and what elements of this are structural? To start, we delved deep into pandemic economic history. Our eyes focused on the structural and cyclical undercurrents sculpting post-pandemic worlds. Then, we reviewed our predictions from the last report on the Future of Food with the same structural and cyclical lens.
While there are many factors influencing the future of our food system, the study of past pandemic economic history is starkly consistent – an innovation cycle begins, and old habits and norms do shift.
Pandemic Economics – Recovery, Innovation, and Economic Factors
We weaved throughout history to study eight historic pandemics. We blended quantitative and qualitative study to apprehend structural and cyclical factors, and the subtleties that come along with each. In the case of economic and financial market recovery, we found traditional recessions vary from pandemic-induced recessions in duration and pattern of recovery. Many are a V-shaped recovery – this one might be as well.
While we started in 1342, we distilled our journey down to a single question – do we have the ingredients for the roaring 2020s?
Pandemic economic history teaches us that one of the hallmarks is that innovation plays a critical role in the future normal. As Dr. Katherine A. Foss recently noted, “Disease can permanently alter society, and often for the best by creating better practices and habits. Crisis sparks action and response.”
The Future of Food – Structural Versus Cyclical
Even before Covid-19 and perhaps for the first time since World War II, the underlying assumptions that drive how we grow and eat food were challenged by changes from the consumer and other variables: globalization and the focus on supply chain efficiency, immigration and access to labor, the future profitability of traditional commodity systems as well as the impact on climate change volatility, rising healthcare costs, and a future where we will need to feed over nine billion people.
Perhaps accelerated by Covid-19, the potential common thread that could bridge us to the future is technology. Before Covid-19, changing consumer behaviors coupled with innovation were exuding pressure on the market and driving change across the food system. We continue to see the pandemic act as a catalyzing agent to accelerate trends that were in motion before it began. We believe that food and agriculture has undergone significant structural changes that will alter the course of the industry. In our recently published report, The Ingredients for a Food System Revolution, we explore five areas of significant food system structural change: Decommodification of Protein, Channel Digitization, Food & Ag Digitization, Controlled Environment Agriculture, and the Convergence of Food and Health.
While there has been immeasurable human and economic loss as a result of the pandemic we hope this research provides a sense of hope that we have the opportunity to emerge with better systems for humans and the planet.