Scott Bowman is a managing partner at Clareo, a growth strategy firm, and co-chair of the TWIN Nourish 2050 Catalyst.
The past few weeks, fears about COVID-19 have spread beyond the economy and markets to something more primal: the impacts it might have on our food system. Stories of restaurant closures, the strain on grocers and potential supply shocks abound. Images of empty store shelves flood our minds.
But in a world where fear dominates headlines and infects our dialogue, how do we shift from anxiety to action? What can we do to protect our food system?
Recently, I had a conversation with Dr. Stephen Ostroff and Jack Bobo, colleagues of mine in The World Innovation Network. Both of them bring deep expertise and broad global perspectives from decades-long leadership with the FDA, CDC and U.S. State Department. Our conversation elicited the following three urgent calls to action.
We need to reduce friction in the food system
We have a complex, interconnected global supply chain that is increasingly susceptible to disruptions at multiple points. Worker shortages in manufacturing and processing plants, logistics and distribution could impact production and flow of goods through the system. New restrictions and preventative actions by ports around the world due to the pandemic could potentially delay or disrupt global trade. As Jack Bobo pointed out, “At a time like this, we should be doing everything possible to reduce friction in the food system.”
Short term, we need to take steps to protect farms and the migrant agricultural workers they rely on as we approach summer harvest. One issue is visa processing. The U.S. State Department had previously halted new H-2A visa processing for temporary agriculture workers, a program that farmers across the U.S. rely on to supply nearly 250,000 seasonal workers. Bloomberg Law recently pointed out that temporary measures have been taken to allow current guest workers already in the United States to remain here beyond the current three-year limit.
However, the nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute (EPI) has pointed out that only about 40% of workers are typically returning workers, and that halting the processing of new H-2A applications for an extended period of time could lead to a shortage of as many as 60,000 workers at a time when we’re facing peak summer demand.
Another issue is worker safety. The EPI also points out in the same report that health safety measures for migrant agricultural workers on farms are woefully inadequate.
Finally, the administration is currently considering making cuts to H-2A guest worker pay, an action which California growers resist, as it won’t help much, and could create further strain on these vital workers. Protecting our food system is vital and solving this problem will require reforms of the H-2A system, not short-term Band-Aids. Farmers and migrant farm workers are the lifeblood of the U.S. food system.
We also need to put an end to the U.S.-China trade war and threats of tariffs with European nations. Now is not the time for these kinds of protectionist actions. American farmers have already paid a steep price: sharp losses in exports, record debt levels and bankruptcies, declining real farm incomes (adjusting for federal assistance) and other indirect costs. At a time like this, we need to do everything we can to stimulate and grow global trade, not hamper it.
We need to protect the safety of our food
To be clear, COVID-19 is not a foodborne disease. However, food safety issues can arise if supply chains aren’t operating efficiently. And in an environment where the food industry is already facing a pandemic of mistrust, we should be doing everything we can to engender trust in food rather than erode it.
The FDA announced on March 18 it is ending routine surveillance inspections of food manufacturing and processing plants. International inspections were called off even earlier. This is ill-timed and ill-advised for a food system already under stress. Given that the FDA regulates 77% of the U.S. food supply, this could add unnecessary risk. The FDA should follow the lead of private-sector leaders that are exploring new ways to innovate: adapting processes for remote work and accelerating digital transformation efforts.
Innovation demands we think in terms of possibilities, asking “How might we?” questions. Constraints force the mind to think creatively; they foster innovation rather than hampering it. Rather than shutting down all routine surveillance efforts, the FDA should be asking, “How might we embrace digital and remote technologies to conduct inspections when we cannot be physically present?”
Corporate leaders should also be using this opportunity to rethink supply chain strategies and invest in digital technologies that enable radical transparency and full traceability and engender trust. Such solutions can help mitigate risk and will help narrow the food industry’s trust gap.
We need to treat all food system workers as critical infrastructure
Steve Ostroff points out, “How we define critical infrastructure and essential workers at times like these matters. Like healthcare workers, food system workers are the unsung heroes of this crisis.”
While many food manufacturers, producers and distributors are considered essential businesses, often those on the front lines of food distribution are not. For example, according to NPR, less than half of states have extended emergency childcare benefits to grocery store workers, while eight states they have increased safety standards for shoppers. This needs to change; every state should declare front-line workers as essential.
Businesses can lead where government falls short. They can offer short-term benefits such as paid sick leave. They can also provide front-line workers with personal protective equipment, take steps to limit their hours while not reducing their pay, implement social distancing and other in-store safety procedures, and take other steps to prioritize worker health and safety.
The recent strikes at Amazon and Instacart over the need for improved safety measures, medical coverage and hazard pay should serve as a canary in the coal mine for our food system. Workers like these are the first responders of our food system. We need to treat them as such.
Let’s not waste this crisis
Winston Churchill is credited for having once said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” A crisis like this one has the potential to create massive disruption in our food system, and we must act now to keep that from happening. However, it can also catalyze and accelerate innovation. We must strive to prevent the former and foster the latter.
Food distribution is one area that will be ripe for innovation when this is all over. We have all witnessed the aggressive rise of online ordering, restaurant and grocery delivery, meal kits, automated retail, and other new business models in recent years. Trends like these, accelerated by this pandemic, will radically transform food distribution in ways that affect product and service offerings, business models, and the value chains that enable them.
Accessibility of healthy, nutritious food is another area. As we seek to nourish the world to 2050 and beyond, we must work hard to ensure healthy food options are accessible, affordable, sustainable and viable. Today, they are not, and that that’s a problem we must solve.
Let’s move from anxiety to action. Let’s take steps to protect our food system today, but also adapt, grow and create a better future for tomorrow.