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Crisis vs opportunity: how has COVID-19 impacted the agrifood sector in 2020?

14 December 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the food system like never before, but how has the agrifood sector adapted in 2020 to ensure the future of food is sustainable, resilient and plentiful?

As we look back at 2020, the year that no one could have predicted, it is clear that the agrifood sector will never be the same again. After regional outbreaks and national lockdowns, panicked stockpiling across Europe, and the introduction of EU ‘green lanes’ to prioritise essential food commodities, COVID-19 put an enormous strain on the European food system. 

Lost business revenues, the forced closure of non-essential establishments, and restrictions on movement introduced at scale across Europe in March 2020 (1) caused fears of supply chain disruptions, increased food insecurity and surges in food waste. However, the agrifood sector came together to alleviate these fears and solve these new challenges.  

The pandemic ignited a sense of community, a drive for healthier, more sustainable lifestyles, and a new way of thinking for consumers and industry alike. The agrifood sector was forced to adapt and mitigate the impacts of the pandemic, and consumer behaviour and priorities changed with it. 

EIT Food’s Food Foresight report (2), which explored how the agrifood sector will develop in the future under various scenarios, identified the primary impacts of COVID-19 across three categories within the agrifood sector: the real economy, the financial sector and changes in behaviour and expectations. Some of the primary impacts the report highlighted included higher demand from the agrifood industry for capital to maintain liquidity, increased uncertainty and risk aversion among consumers, and increased uncertainty among policymakers leading to the implementation of food protectionism measures.

 

In a recent episode of the Food Fight podcast (3) with Professor Klaus Grunert, Head of Section of the Department of Management at Aarhus University, and Brij Sahi, CEO and co-founder of EIT Food RisingFoodStar SwissDeCode, the pandemic was described as a “disruptive event which has changed the daily lives for all of us.” Brij said that “companies are going to have to revisit their strategy for moving forward...and when we look at some of the customs issues and regulatory frameworks, it hasn't been decided as to how COVID-19 will be treated in the future.”

Although uncertainty may still exist within the agrifood sector, Brij noted that “it's a lot easier to have a conversation about food safety today than it was in the past,” and Klaus added that “from the perspective of the green transition, there is a chance for the agrifood sector to actually become a better place.” 

Listen now:

Collaborating through crisis: the unification of the agrifood sector

After the initial shock of the crisis in early 2020, it became clear that these new challenges were going to impact the food system for the foreseeable future. Of these, food waste and food insecurity were two of some of the most pressing for the sector, as well as for consumers. 

Despite environmental and financial concerns that “mountains of food waste” (4) would emerge as farmers and restaurants had reduced demand for their produce, and that household food waste would increase after stockpiling (5), processes such as digitalisation and decentralised manufacturing were fast-tracked to reduce the risk of supply disruption and to avoid panic among consumers. 

After fears that more than a quarter of a billion people would suffer from acute hunger as a result of the pandemic (6), new agrifood collaborations and initiatives across Europe meant that food and products were repurposed and redistributed to those in need. 

Businesses changed their production lines to offer essential products, such as Brewdog which produced hand sanitizer alongside its beverages. Farmers, supermarkets, restaurants and charities, to name but a few, also diverted and adapted their agrifood services to feed those in isolation. 

In Belgium, an EIT Food-backed collaborative project, Robin Food, saw many organisations across the food system coming together to make use of surplus vegetables during the pandemic to create healthy soups for vulnerable people. 

 

Robin Food was one of the beneficiaries of EIT Food’s COVID-19 Rapid Response Call for Innovation projects (7). The funding, which totalled €6.17 million, was awarded to 13 projects made up from consortia representing 52 global organisations to fast-track product or service solutions that could have significant and immediate impacts to the challenges brought about by COVID-19. The Call was launched alongside the COVID-19 Bridge Fund (8), designed to support agrifood startups that had been adversely affected by the pandemic.

One such startup was Mimica, a UK-based business that reduces food waste through its food freshness indicator technology. In an episode of the Food Fight podcast (9), Founder of Mimica Solveiga Pakštaitė said that the pandemic provoked the adoption of more “people focused values” in daily business. She said, “we need to be focusing on the things that really matter,” remembering that “partners are humans too” and that all parts of the food value chain were juggling personal challenges from COVID-19 on top of the pressures of maintaining the crucial flow of the food system.

“The COVID-19 crisis motivates many organisations to step up and lead by example, and the launch of both of these funding opportunities demonstrates our commitment to extending help over and above our ongoing and dedicated support of the European food system. The investment that we are making available right now will help those high potential startups to adapt and prosper in the post-COVID world and boost the creation and implementation of much-needed innovation to help the agrifood sector respond to the crisis.” 

Dr. Andy Zynga (CEO of EIT Food)

Has the pandemic created a new type of consumer?

Consumer trends and behaviours also changed as a result of the impacts of the pandemic. A study of 5,000 consumers in 10 European countries, recently published by EIT Food in partnership with Aarhus University, revealed that lockdown measures may have caused lasting behavioural changes among consumers that will impact the future of the agrifood sector. Klaus Grunert, who led the study, said, “our research shows that COVID-19 has changed the way people think about, purchase, plan and consume their food. The silver lining during this pandemic has been the rise of various positive trends, particularly around sustainability and health. The industry has a real opportunity to innovate to meet consumer needs.” (10)

The study (10) found that COVID-19 impacted consumer food behaviours in a variety of ways, including an increased focus on health, buying produce locally, cutting costs, and eating a larger variety of food.

As Klaus said, these lasting impacts have seen a drive for new collaboration across the food value chain. Consumers are clearly more aware of their food and, with home-working now the norm, want to learn more about how to eat sustainably and healthily on a daily basis. This is evidenced by EIT Food’s free online education courses reaching an incredible 100,000 enrolments in November 2020. Courses span from ‘Understanding food supply chains in a time of crisis’ to ‘Food and Nutrition: the truth behind the headlines’ (11) and enrolments are continuing to climb.

In another Food Fight podcast episode, ‘Food in crisis: is the food system resilient enough?’ (12), with guests Professor Chris Elliott OBE from Queen’s University Belfast and FoodUnfolded journalist Silvia Lazzaris, a new type of consumer was a key discussion topic. Chris said that “the food system has to feed 7.5 billion people, 365 days of the year, in a way that is cost effective and ethical, so when issues such as the pandemic arise, we really begin to see the stresses and the strains. But one of the positive takeaways is that people are reconnecting with food systems and looking for locally produced food. We will have a much more knowledgeable public who can make informed decisions about their food.”

As our CEO Dr. Andy Zynga explains, innovation in the agrifood sector must follow in the footsteps of the consumer in order for the future of the food system to be sustainable, healthy and trusted (13). 

Embedding resilience in the food system

The question on everybody’s lips is now about the future. What will happen in the next 12 months? What will change in the food system? Will there be lasting impacts for the agrifood sector?

The EU’s Farm to Fork Strategy outlines plans for the transformation of the food system to centre around future resilience, health and sustainability, as discussed at the virtual Future of Food Conference on 1-2 December 2020. 

The Strategy states that “a shift to a sustainable food system can bring environmental, health and social benefits, offer economic gains and ensure that the recovery from the crisis puts us onto a sustainable path.” (14) 

After warnings about the connection between animal agriculture, viral zoonoses and pandemics (15), and growing consumer interest in sustainability (12), research suggests that trends such as plant-based products, ‘healing’ foods and long life products (16) will continue to grow and enter the market. Combined with the other impacts of the pandemic, how will growing awareness of the farming sector see improvements in the supply chain? Will this make farming a more attractive, better valued livelihood? And will rising interest in plant-based proteins help to rebalance meat consumption and contribute to the green recovery? 

The Farm to Fork Strategy says that “ensuring a sustainable livelihood for primary producers, who still lag behind in terms of income, is essential for the success of the recovery and the transition.” (14)

Chris added that, “as the start of the food value chain, we owe farmers a massive debt. They have kept working throughout the pandemic and many are now facing absolutely dire financial circumstances. If we want to have a food system based on equality, profits should be fairly distributed right across food systems and allow much more investment across farms to increase resilience.” (12)

 

For resilience to become embedded in the food system, these investments must be made in innovation, according to Brij Sahi (3). “The farming sector will have to use innovation to better bring food from farms into production areas, towards the fork,” he said. “But then when one looks at the service industry, I think that's probably forever changed.”

EIT Food has been supporting farmers through the pandemic via initiatives such as the Focus on Farmers programme. With the overall goal to help farmers adopt agricultural technologies and innovations by recruiting ‘farmer champions’ and ‘technology ambassadors’, in 2020 support has focused on helping over 2,000 farmers in Germany, Italy and the UK & Ireland adapt through the challenging environment brought about by COVID-19.

The pandemic has also encouraged some small-scale resilience innovations. Many farms are now selling direct to consumers (17) for example, and more are moving to regenerative agriculture to embed resilience in their practices. 

A big thank you to our essential workers 

It is clear that the pandemic will have a lasting impact on the food system, but 2020 has also been a year to be proud of the agrifood sector. We celebrated the startups battling COVID-19 on World Food Day, we congratulated the World Food Programme for winning the Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts to fight hunger during the pandemic, and we came together virtually to discuss the green recovery and the future of the food system. 

EIT Food is proud of our essential workers, but the work is far from over. This is why we have continued our support throughout 2020 and will do so into 2021 and beyond. We are thankful for the tireless work that the essential workers in the agrifood sector have done to keep Europe and the world fed, and we endeavour to keep working to transform the food system for the better. 

For more information about the impacts of COVID-19 on the agrifood sector, download the Food Foresight Report, the COVID-19 Study on European Food Behaviours and visit our COVID-19 Response page.

Further reading

Sources

  1. BBC: Coronavirus: Europe plans full border closure in virus battle
  2. EIT Food: Foresight on the impact of COVID-19
  3. EIT Food: The Food Fight podcast: The impact of covid-19 on consumer food habits and the agrifood sector 
  4. World Economic Forum: Here’s how COVID-19 creates food waste mountains that threaten the environment
  5. FoodUnfolded: COVID-19: Impacts on food waste
  6. World Food Programme: Risk of hunger pandemic as coronavirus set to almost double acute hunger by end of 2020
  7. EIT Food: COVID-19 Rapid Response Call for Innovation projects
  8. EIT Food: COVID-19 Bridge Fund
  9. EIT Food: The Food Fight podcast: From seed to scale: the journey of an agrifood entrepreneur
  10. EIT Food: EIT Food report reveals lasting impact of COVID-19 on European food behaviours
  11. Future Learn: EIT Food courses
  12. EIT Food: The Food Fight podcast: Food in crisis: is the food system resilient enough?
  13. EURACTIV: A recipe for success: three crucial ingredients for the EU’s Farm to Fork Strategy
  14. European Commission: Farm to Fork Strategy
  15. Humane Society International: An HSI report: The connection between animal agriculture, viral zoonoses, and global pandemics
  16. Food Navigator: How COVID-19 is shaking up consumer trends: Mintel
  17. World Economic Forum: How farms are getting closer to consumers in the pandemic
EIT Food

About The Author: EIT Food

EIT Food is Europe’s leading food innovation initiative, working to make the food system more sustainable, healthy and trusted.

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