Looking ahead: The top food and agriculture stories for 2021

One thing we know for certain about the coming year? The coronavirus pandemic is far from over

By FoodPrint
Published December 30, 2020 7:00PM (EST)
Harvesting alfalfa crop, aerial view. (Getty Images)
Harvesting alfalfa crop, aerial view. (Getty Images)

This article originally appeared on FoodPrint.

FoodPrint

If 2020 taught us anything, it's that predicting the future is risky business. In a world with such an uncertain future, does predicting top stories for the coming year even make sense? In late 2019, COVID-19 was not on our radar at all. We wrote about the next 12 months with a confidence that looks poignantly naive in retrospect. We could not have predicted how a pandemic — now known to us as the pandemic — could have disrupted supply chains, decimated the restaurant industry, sickened and killed food and farmworkers, caused huge increases in poverty and hunger and transformed how we grocery shop.

One thing we know for certain about the coming year: The coronavirus pandemic is far from over, and we will continue to see tumult well into 2021. In light of all this, we've tried to approach these predictions with a tremendous amount of humility and a fair amount of caution.

Food insecurity will dominate daily life for a huge number of people

The pandemic disrupted nearly every facet of American life this year, and brought with it the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression. Though there were some signs of recovery over the summer, unemployment claims are rising again to record highs. This, combined with a spike in grocery prices, has aggravated the nation's persistent problem with food insecurity: Nearly four in 10 Americans reported not having enough to eat this year, and nearly 17 million children are expected to struggle with finding enough to eat.

While stimulus packages in the spring included some additional funding for emergency food programs like SNAP, those resources have since run out. Other fixes, like the Farm to Families Food Box program, have been riddled with allegations of mismanagement. Meanwhile, food banks are left to fill the hole left by inadequate government support, with lines stretching for miles in some areas. As aid dwindles, more and more Americans have turned to shoplifting grocery items. As for additional government funding: The House has passed a relief bill with more substantial aid, but the Senate is unlikely to approve anything before next year.

Looking ahead

Without dramatic action, hunger will get worse until the economy dramatically improves. Some potential measures that could forestall this — like the proposed 15% increase in SNAP benefits — will rest on the final makeup of the Senate, which won't be determined until Georgia's special elections in early January. Still, anti-hunger groups are hopeful that the incoming administration can remove some of the barriers towards SNAP access, making it easier for immigrants and people who have recently lost their jobs to enroll in the program. These changes won't solve the US hunger problem overnight, but could go a long way towards improving life for millions.

Restaurants will fight for their lives 

This year was absolutely devastating for restaurants. While some large chains are actually managing to do well, small business owners and their workers are suffering greatly. By the end of 2020, restaurants are projected to lose a catastrophic $240 billion worth of revenue. Current unemployment rates in the hospitality industry sit around 15 percent, higher than almost any other industry. One in five restaurants have already closed — by end of year there will have been over 100,000 closures. Those that remain face ever-changing regulations and predatory service charges from delivery apps. Paycheck Protection Program loans were an inadequate, short term fix for what has turned out to be a long term problem. With these low-wage restaurant workers out of work (many of whom are undocumented and therefore unable to make use of federal hunger benefits), the food insecurity problem discussed above grows and grows. And of course, restaurant closures have ripple effects throughout the food system, decimating markets for various farmers and fisherpeople.

Looking ahead

There are two options here: Let restaurants die, or fund them to stay afloat through the first half of 2021. Unless Congress offers some sort of support, 2021 will be grim indeed. There is legislation on the table — already passed by the House but waiting on the Senate — that could do this: the Real Economic Support That Acknowledges Unique Restaurant Assistance Needed To Survive Act, or the RESTAURANTS Act. We are hopeful that the Senate will see that letting small businesses die is not good for anyone. And while we can cross our fingers that life after the vaccine will include a return to indoor dining, many restaurants will be long gone before that happens, if they're not thrown a lifeline.

Public awareness of labor abuses in the food industry will climb 

While the pandemic has affected everyone, it hasn't affected everyone equally. Workers in the food system have been some of those most hurt by the virus, with many in the meat industry among the hardest hit. There have been more than 50,000 confirmed cases recorded so far and deliberate efforts from the industry's management to conceal data from health agencies has allowed operations to continue despite health risks. Farmworkers, who had to deal with the virus, wildfires and extreme heat, have also faced the difficult choice between their paychecks and their health. While some of these risks are unique to the pandemic, the realities of the past year also exposed many of the fundamental injustices that workers in the food system face. Public outcry over outbreaks and poor conditions helped push some companies towards greater transparency and adopting better protections for workers.

The heightened awareness of labor issues in the food system doesn't stop with the pandemic: With issues like child slavery in the cocoa industry currently being argued before the Supreme Court, wider labor and equity issues in the food system are getting more attention.

Looking ahead

While a COVID-19 vaccine is on the horizon, the pandemic will be with us through next year, bringing questions of whether food and farm workers should be early in line to receive a vaccine. Hopefully, the poor treatment of essential workers during the pandemic can also spur changes that make workplaces less dangerous to begin with: Labor groups are already campaigning to block proposed line speed changes in meatpacking plants that would make the job more dangerous, for example.

Plant-based foods will continue their meteoric rise in popularity

In 2018 and 2019 we predicted that plant-based foods would continue to rise in popularity and accessibility and we were right. But sales for plant-based meat, specifically, grew exponentially more than anyone could have predicted. Brands like Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat and Oatly have been joined by plant-based products from major meat and dairy companies like Tyson, JBS and Whitewave, making not-really-meat and not-really-milk major market opportunities for big and small companies alike (to the tune of $23.1 billion by 2025). The coronavirus pandemic shone a light on some of the industrial meat industry's cruelest practices: Unsafe working conditions and virus outbreaks temporarily reduced capacity at plants enough to force the euthanization and disposal of animals that got too old to slaughter. The public seeing both the industry's cruelty and fragility in such stark light may have contributed to the explosive growth of demand for plant-based meats this year.

Looking ahead

In 2021, sales of plant-based products will continue to rise and more companies will get in on the action — at both the production and retail level — to be sure. But the same major questions persist that should give us all pause: Are the sales enough to move the needle on meat consumption, as these companies claim they will? And, while these foods might produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions than livestock production, can they really be called sustainable when they are made from the very same problematic ingredients used to feed factory-farmed cattle and dairy cows? Is the halo of health surrounding them a mirage? Regardless, it's likely that people's newly heightened awareness about the problems with meat production will give even more wind to plant-based meat's sails, despite the lingering unanswered questions about its sustainability and health.

A return to normalcy at the USDA, EPA and FDA

After four years of the Trump administration's meddling, many federal agencies look very different than they used to. Many saw their budgets slashed, and some were even led by administrators — like the Environmental Protection Agency's climate change-denying chief Scott Pruitt — who wanted to break them down from the inside. The Department of Agriculture wasn't spared from this damage: The agency's research arms were moved to Kansas City, hobbling research efforts and causing a massive departure of scientists and other professionals from the agency. These disruptions have big consequences: Looser regulations on food safety and pollutants have led to fewer safety inspections and increased greenhouse gas emissions. Reduction in research capacity means that important statistics went unreported, impacting the calculations that determine things like minimum wage for farmworkers.

Looking ahead

The upcoming change in administration offers hope that this combative approach to federal agencies will end. President-elect Joe Biden's platform for rural America pledges to restore funding for USDA conservation programs, among other changes. We don't know yet if relocated groups like the USDA's ERS will return to their headquarters in Washington, DC and rehire their personnel, but the remaining staff at other agencies appear ready to get back to work: observers suggest that recent actions at the EPA, such as the publication of a report showing the herbicide glyphosate is harmful to most endangered species, are signs that agency scientists are eager to return to their core mission.

These changes are all welcome, but some have argued these departments need even more dramatic refocusing: promoting healthy food access and climate change-fighting local food networks rather than catering to agribusiness interests. With the announcement that President Obama's secretary of agriculture, Tom Vilsack, will be returning to Biden's cabinet, it's unclear how much change is really on the table.

Black farmers will fight for land justice 

This summer, as the country began to reckon with its racist roots of colonialism, land theft and slavery, food and agriculture were, thankfully, part of the conversation. One important truth confronted: Black landowners have systematically been stripped of their land. There are currently many different efforts to help reset land ownership and return what was lost. During his campaign for the presidency, Biden promised Black farmers that he would work to advance equity in rural America with a specific focus on farmers of color.

In late 2020, Sens. Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand introduced the Justice for Black Farmers Act, intended to correct racial inequities in agricultural policies and institutions and racial discrimination at the USDA, including inequalities that existed under Vilsack's direction in his previous term as secratary of Agriculture. (It's worth noting that not all Black farmers are satisfied with the oversights of the Black Farmers Act.)

Looking ahead

Vilsack's return to the USDA has infuriated farmers of color and their allies, and called into question Biden's commitment to doing anything meaningful for farmers of color. But eight years have passed since he left the post, and the world has changed a lot since then. This issue has momentum and the people who voted for Biden will not forget the promises made. If the Biden team is looking for additional ways to achieve a more equitable future through land policy, the National Young Farmers Coalition has some suggestions available in a new report.

A reckoning for farm aid and subsidies 

Trump's trade war dramatically reshaped the way that some farms do business, and led the USDA to give out billions of dollars of direct payments to help farmers recoup lost sales. When the pandemic disrupted farmers' sales even further, these payments increased again, totaling more than $46 billion in 2020. While the funds have become an important lifeline for many farms, economists are worried that these payments — much like other subsidies — are a dangerous tool to use in the long term: They're too expensive to maintain indefinitely, but retracting them too soon would spell financial doom for many farmers.

Looking ahead

While the end of the pandemic is in sight, major changes to American life — specifically how and where we eat — mean that the market for many farmers may take a long time to recover. Farmers who rely heavily on exports may not see an instant recovery with Trump's departure either: Biden's team doesn't plan to immediately end tariffs against China, and global economic uncertainty means that markets could be unreliable.

Climate change will be treated as real by people in charge

Last year, the explosion of the Youth Climate Movement made it look like 2020 might be the year that world leaders got serious about climate change. Sadly, between the pandemic and other distractions, that didn't happen, especially in the US. Nov. 4, 2020, marked the US's formal withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, capping off a year and a presidency marked by climate change denial. The Trump administration rolled back additional environmental regulations this year, along with opening up new areas of the Arctic for drilling. And this wasn't just a US trend; while companies pledged to pressure Brazil after last year's massive fires in the Amazon, vast new areas of delicate habitat were torched for development, releasing huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Meanwhile, the effects of climate change were more apparent than ever: a record-breaking California fire season and the news that 2020 is set to be the hottest year on record added a sense of near-apocalyptic doom to an already tense year.

Looking ahead

The US looks poised to resume its international commitments to action on climate change, with the Biden administration announcing its intention to return to and strengthen the Paris accords and appointing John Kerry and Former EPA head Gina McCarthy as "Climate Czars" to oversee international and domestic climate policy in an expansion of a role that hasn't been filled since 2011. All this signals a good start, though it isn't enough to safeguard the future; it is almost certain that global emissions will climb again as economies start to recover from COVID-19, making nationwide and local action more important. With talk of carbon markets for farmers and more companies announcing soil health and other initiatives, we predict that regenerative agriculture will continue to grow as part of the proposed solution. As regenerative agriculture expands its horizons, however, there are outstanding questions about what defines "regenerative," whether industrial monocultures can be truly regenerative and how the movement can be more inclusive of Indigenous people and people of color.

The plastic revolution will come back to life

Last year, we anticipated the fight against single-use plastics in the food system would continue, and while there was early progress — several cities rolled out plastic bag bans, for example — this movement was quickly derailed by the pandemic. Plastic packaging boomed as restaurants pivoted to takeout, coffee shops embraced disposable cups and some stores even stopped allowing reusable bags. And although the plastic industry pushed the narrative that reusables were unsafe, the subsequent science showed they may even be safer than disposables. Still, the "hygiene theater" of pandemic safety has a long hangover, and many businesses have been slow to accept reusables again — even using disposables for dining in.

Looking ahead

As pandemic recovery moves forward in 2021, we're confident that the fight against plastic in the food system will regain its strength. This month a group of 550 organizations wrote to the Biden administration demanding action against the plastic pollution crisis, with specific calls for everything from ending subsidies to plastic production companies to eliminate the purchasing of plastic, disposable products by the federal government and replace it with reusables. Whether the administration will have the teeth to stand up to the petrochemical industry is dubious, but we predict companies and consumers will forge ahead. You can be part of the solution and take up our plastic reduction pledge.

Home cooking is here to stay (at least until there's a vaccine)

2020 was the year that everyone became a home cook, mostly not by choice. Faced with stay-at-home orders, people who were able to stocked up their pantries and started to cook for themselves in record numbers. Sourdough bread from scratch, dried beans and scallions regrown on windowsills found their way into people's kitchens. Celebrity chefs and regular people took to the internet to teach people how to handle all of these ingredients. Even nine months in, the number of people eating at home more regularly than they did pre-pandemic has remained high. Also setting records: seed purchases and subsistence home gardening.

Looking ahead

For the foreseeable future, people will (in theory at least) still be staying home, meaning more meals eaten — and likely cooked —at home. There have already been a few cycles of excitement and dread around home cooking, and we predict there will be a few more cycles to come. There will be more loaves of sourdough and more pots of beans in all of our futures.


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Agriculture Climate Change Coronavirus Covid-19 Farming Food Food Insecurity Foodprint Global Warming