There’s an old, old saying in sports: you can’t follow the game without a scorecard. Well, agriculture is no different. Last year saw a very mixed score sheet for the major issues and trends in our food and agricultural system, with some debatable – and some undeniable – winners and losers.
Dirt to Dinner took a look at just a few of the major issues and events of the past year. We’re exploring not only what happened in food & ag across the globe, but also those who gained and those who suffered from these events. Ultimately, why we all should care about our ever-evolving food system.
Without further ado, here are the top food & ag issues we faced in 2023:
Global Food Scorecard
The Farm Bill, a comprehensive package of legislation governs food production, rural economic support, and supplemental nutrition, creates the blueprint for our national food system. It was slated for review in 2023, but passage was detrimentally delayed due to inter-party disagreements on multiple fronts, mostly related to spending levels. Action has been promised for the neglected Farm Bill in 2024.
Despite continuing conflict, the Ukraine war remains a critical component of our global food system and a major source of foodstuffs for the Middle East, Africa, parts of Europe and other destinations. But armed conflicts around the world continue to threaten disruptions to the global flow of commodities and food. Conflicts around the globe continue to expand, with little reason to expect a clear resolution anytime soon. Ukrainian farmers have shown a remarkable resiliency and capacity to maintain both the production and trade important to our global food system.
Drought & natural disasters in the western United States and other parts of the world compromised crop levels, often significantly. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration noted a record 28 major weather events in the United States alone, causing $93 billion in damage. The year began with over 46 percent of the contiguous U.S. officially in drought. Hot, dry conditions in key global production areas cut stocks of wheat and other crops, with significant price gyrations.
A virulent strain of avian flu spreads rapidly and causes high death rates among many forms of poultry. The outbreak that began in 2022 continued into 2023, leading to losses in chicken, turkey and other poultry flocks estimated at 21.5 million birds. That’s down from almost 57 million in 2022, but more than enough to send price shock waves across grocery shelves almost everywhere. Research continues on the threat to human health posed by this virus, with the Centers for Disease Control advising us to watch for flu-like symptoms nonetheless.
Labor shortages plague all segments of our food chain. Reports of rising concern about a serious lack of willing labor recurred throughout 2023, as farmers, suppliers, food manufacturers, retailers and even food-service providers faced sometimes serious staff shortages. Part of the problem: increasing reluctance to do field work when other less-physically demanding opportunities were available, and immigration remains a political hot potato.
Regarding inflationary pressures, consumers say enough is enough. Food price increases have cooled a bit – dropping to a mere 5.8 percent, from 2022 levels around 10 percent and 2023 peak of 10.1 percent. But consumers have shown increasing cost-consciousness that pressures food manufacturers to seek cost-control improvements.
The pipeline from dirt to dinner is getting back to normal, but there’s more to be done. COVID triggered massive disruption across the global food chain, and efforts to realign the chain to reflect a return to more normal environment continued across 2023. The transportation element of the chain remains particualry vulnerable, as volatile energy prices, development of new biofuels, changes in technology continue to roil the entire food sector.
The sheer scale of the problem makes it tough to achieve the kind of progress we would like to see with food waste reduction. Efforts to reduce food waste across the entire food chain marked some notable anecdotal progress in 2023, but it remains difficult to assess the degree of progress toward ambitious targets set by various companies and governmental agencies. The big lesson from 2023: cutting the estimated 30-40 percent of food wasted across the modern food chain is an on-going effort, not a program or campaign.
Renewable energy sources like biofuels and clean energy made significant headway in 2023. Ethanol remained the Big Dog in U.S. production of biofuels, but renewable diesel and other products showed noteworthy increases in production capacity in 2023. Biofuels for aviation uses helped drive growth in the sustainable aviation fuel market to an estimated $1.1 billion in 2023 – and a projected $16.8 billion by 2030.
Practical consumer considerations slow environmental aspirations demanding green packaging. Prior to COVID, the widespread focus on environmental protection embraced the idea of “green packaging” – packaging made in an environmentally responsible manner, often from renewable materials. In 2023, support for the concept remained significant – as high as 39 percent by one report. But market analysis during the year showed a significant shift in purchasing priorities, with practical matters such as price and convenience eclipsing environmental ambitions.
The continued evolution in carbon pricing still complicates the carbon market development. As debate on climate change continued to swirl in 2023, more and more articles sought to explain the importance of carbon markets as an essential tool in combatting greenhouse gas emissions. Such markets establish the price of carbon, enabling carbon producers to purchase carbon credits from those capable of reducing, capturing or avoiding carbon dioxide. Monetizing carbon is supposed to help fund efforts to improve carbon control – in industry, and on the farm. Carbon pricing remains a complex and controversial approach to environmental protection – and an unavoidable issue for continuing debate in 2024.
The role of technology in personal nutrition, such as apps for diet tracking, personalized nutrition based on genetic testing, and AI in designing diet plans grew by tremendous leaps and bounds in 2023. Winners in this arena include tech companies, as well as consumers benefiting from personalized nutrition and diet planning. Companies in the health industry and consumers wary of AI for its access to personalized information miss the opportunity for developing tailored dietary approaches to individual needs.
The impact of climate change on nutrition also took the spotlight in 2023. Several studies explored how climate change affects the nutritional content of food, with rising CO2 levels potentially lowering protein, mineral, and vitamin contents in crops. Companies developing solutions to maintain or improve the nutritional quality of crops are keeping us ahead of the game, which is especially important for those populations in regions where food’s nutritional quality is most affected, leading to increased risk of nutritional deficiencies.
Complications emerged in the further development of alternative protein products as an environmentally-responsible food choice. After several years of eager anticipation and enthusiasm for alternative meats, the industry in 2023 faced up to the realities of developing and winning widespread acceptance of a new and novel food product. Some ambitious enterprises fell by the economic wayside, as recognized leaders in the field continued to work on bringing prices in line with inflation – weary consumer willingness to pay – not to mention the rising costs of capital to entrepreneurial start-ups.
Demand for organic foods helped drive noteworthy growth in global organic foods, despite the headwinds of high food price inflation. The global organic food market approached an amazing $295 billion in 2023, up by more than $35 billion in one year alone, and $68 billion from 2021. Industry officials cite growing health-consciousness around the world as the driving factor behind such growth.