2019 is winding down quickly and all of us, from supermarket shopper to farmer, must admit it’s been a pretty wild ride for the food industry. The headlines about ag, our food and how we get it – from dirt to dinner – have been consistently interesting, sometimes surprising and occasionally astounding. How about a wrap-up to summarize some of the more awe-inspiring stories from 2019?
This year’s reporting sets the stage for some tough discussions for the ag industry to what no doubt will be a series of challenges in 2020 – and beyond. Though it seems out of our hands, we as consumers have serious pull here based on our purchase decisions. And for the future of food and agriculture at large.
“Gee, that’s a tough one. So much happened it’s almost impossible to pick just a few!”
2019 has been jam-packed with news headlines affecting our choices in food, the well-being of our farmers, and how new technologies will disrupt the industry. Every day, we’ve heard and read about…
- Throughout the year, farmers remained highly focused and surprisingly hopeful on trade issues, especially involving China and our North American trading partners
- African swine fever is reshaping entire markets, with the virus resulting in 40% of the global pig population to be culled
- The ongoing RoundUp trial regarding glyphosate has enormous implications for farm production, Bayer’s balance sheet, and legal stakes with human health
- Investment in ag technology has exploded in areas such as big data, precision farming, and food supply transparency, with all sorts of new doors opening for all parts of the food system
- And the rapid developments in genetic engineering, such as GMOs, CRISPR, and synthetic biology, have created an ongoing debate over their regulation worldwide
- A focus on soil health and other dimensions of ‘regenerative agriculture’ has become more critical for the health of future harvests
- Claims and counter-claims have been made about finding the right balance between a healthy diet and best use of natural resources for our global health
- Food labeling requirements have gathered steam as consumers drive greater demand for transparency along the entire supply chain
- Food insecurity once again is on the rise around the world, as the United Nations reports
So, how do you pick from that hefty list? Here’s my attempt to weed out the most critical issues as we come into 2020. Take a look at my countdown and let me know your thoughts on Facebook or Twitter!
#4. Food Safety.
The African Swine Flu swept through Asia and decimated the pig population. There are 770 million domestic pigs on various farms worldwide – at least 300 million have died. That is a lot of pigs to bury. China was hit the hardest as they have 440 million pigs – almost half of which have been affected. This does not only have implications for the hog farmers, but it shows how quickly a virus can spread around the world.
Food safety and animal welfare are critical components here:
- How can we improve the quarantine process for animals and poultry?
- Will the African Swine Flu virus spread? What are the implications?
- Will the reduced pork supply change our buying habits? If so, what other forms of protein are we likely to eat?
This is an incredible amount to think about as we head into the new year, and we are only on the first point!
#3. Weather alert.
When a 95-year-old corn and beans farmer in Central Illinois, who is still farming the 1,500 acres he owned since the 1920s, says he can’t remember a worse spring for planting in seven decades of farming, we all should pay attention. Add lingering wet conditions to the mix, and you have the prescription for significant harvest delays and losses – we’re talking up to half of last year’s corn and soybean crop levels in parts of the upper Midwest.
Bad weather is nothing new for farmers, of course. But the extent and severity of this year’s bad conditions caused huge damage, disrupted lives and entire communities, and only complicated the production picture for farmers already reeling from steady income declines.
Maybe more significantly, these reports may prove to be harbingers of the bigger questions yet to come for agriculture about climate change:
- Will consumers accept seed technology and gene editing to help crops grow in wetter, cooler, drier, and/or drought conditions?
- Can the four-row crops, canola, soybeans, cotton, and corn, be modified to grow in new climate regions?
- Are there specialized crops that are more adaptable to varied climates?
- What technologies and farming practices will be implemented to keep our soil secure? No-till farming and cover cropping quickly come to mind here.
And focusing on farmers is just a piece to a much larger puzzle. The right response to climate change involves all industries: from the municipalities, to the golf course, to the housing developer and homeowner, and beyond.
#2. It’s all about the trade.
I wish I had a dime for every time the word “China” appeared in a farm-related story this year. By now, we’ve all figured out just how important China is to U.S. agricultural interests – not just soybean producers, but a lot of other growers, suppliers, and people along the supply chain, too.
That political football has been kicked around all year, with a fair amount of optimism with China’s agreement to buy $50 billion in agricultural goods, up from $23.8 billion in 2017 (52% of which was comprised of soybeans). We hope to get this all sorted out so we can get back to normal in a huge and growing trade relationship.
Finalized on December 10th, the USMCA (U.S.- Mexico-Canada Agreement), formerly NAFTA, was a win for American agriculture. Canada and Mexico are integral to our trade health, as these countries are the U.S.’s first and third largest export markets for food and ag, respectively. Together, this equals about 28% of total food and ag exports in 2017. The USMCA is anticipated to increase US ag exports by $2 billion. Even though NAFTA was a free trade zone, there were still some tariffs and quotas.
The new USMCA will be a win for U.S. dairy farmers, as this agreement will open up opportunities for milk products such as cheese, cream, and yogurt. It will also expand U.S. poultry and egg market access to Canada. Mexico and the U.S. will have the same grading standards for ag products. Finally, the three countries will have the same sanitary standards, based on science as well as agricultural biotechnology and gene editing.
As Trump pushes forward with success on these fronts, it still brings forward new questions for the future:
- What will China buy to reach $50 billion? More soybeans?
- Will trade always be used as a leverage point between the U.S. and other countries?
- How can we protect the U.S. while still ensuring we have global fair trade?
- Will we have other multilateral agreements such as USMCA?
- Will China’s theft of intellectual property continue to occur?
#1. Plant-based protein.
I used to call it “alternative meat,” but the story is a lot bigger than that now. Plant-based meats, eggs, fish, milk, leather, and even collagen for your skin, are here to stay. The speed with which companies like Beyond Meat and Memphis Meats gathered steam (and investor dollars) absolutely amazed me in 2019.
According to AgFunder, ‘The alternative meat market sales growth is expected to grow from $4.6 billion in 2018 to $140 billion ten years from now, growing to 10% of the total meat market.’
But let’s put this in perspective: the total animal products industry in 2018 was close to $2.23 trillion and is expected to grow to $3 trillion by 2025. There is plenty of opportunity for all types of protein producers. But I never would have expected to be deluged with fast-food ads on television pushing exciting new vegetable-based burgers, or to see so many people willing to give it a try.
To me, that’s surprising, but in a very good way: consumers should have a choice. They should be able to choose products that meet their tastes and align with their values.
If someone wants to eat a veggie burger or a meat product produced in a lab, for health reasons, for environmental concerns, for moral values, so be it. Just don’t tell me that I have to eat one or the other. Let me choose. But let me choose facts, not marketing. Let the markets work.
As more and more consumers indicate their preference for plant-based foods, what implications does this have?
- Are consumers getting the facts about meat and dairy, or is it marketing?
- As consumers move away from meat, how are they getting their daily recommended protein requirements?
- Demand for plants and meat will rise as our population grows. How do global producers sustainably meet demand?
- What kind of labeling information does the consumer require to make an educated choice?
This is a profoundly important story about how responsive our food system is proving to be. Consumer tastes and preferences are changing as society changes around us. That should surprise no one. But the story of how fast and how well the food system can recognize that change and accommodate it is indeed newsworthy and earns my number one spot for the Top Food and Ag story of 2019. It will be fascinating to see where the story goes from here.
The Bottom Line
We will continue to keep you updated on new and evolving stories in food and ag, and seek to answer to these pressing questions. Just remember, as you go food shopping this holiday season, we are all an integral part of this moving, ever-changing industry, that is global food. Happy Holidays and see you all in 2020!