Food = health: a new mantra for ag?

Consumers’ growing need for transparency in their food creates opportunities for farmers who innovate.

According to industry watchers, the future of agriculture may be in making a stronger connection between growing food and human health. Think “food is health.”

Agriculture has been watching consumers demand to know more about “where their food comes from” over the past several years. Today, with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, consumers are also wanting more transparency about their food: how it is produced, cared for, processed, and delivered.

“Where does my food come from?” asked Rob Dongoski, a partner with Ernst & Young and a leader in its food and agriculture sector. Consumers are asking: Was my food produced in the United States? If it was produced outside the U.S., it has implied safety issues, including whether sustainable practices were used to produce the food.

Dongoski was part of a recent webinar on food transparency and sustainability in the time of COVID-19, sponsored by Crusonia Conversations, a series of conversations on the intersection of food, health, and agriculture.

Today’s consumers are more demanding, he says, citing research that 70% of today’s consumers say they will eat fresher foods in the future. What does that mean? It might mean shorter supply chains that allow them to monitor the food supply even closer.

With recent food shortages and hiccups in supply chains brought about by the pandemic, it has amplified the need for more resilience in the food chain. “COVID-19 is just a fire drill,” says Erin Fitzgerald, the CEO of U.S. Farmers and Ranchers in Action, an association supporting all dimensions of the food and ag sectors.

Agriculture is an “incredible sector for providing healing for a community’s health and growing” needs, she said, and agriculture has a crucial stake to make that happen, sustainably. Agriculture contributes to the planet and to communities by helping get America to a net-zero contributor of carbon. “It’s been right under our feet, literally,” Fitzgerald said, referring to the soil.

“Our farms have been underrated by society, and in 10 years people will be astounded” by the progress made to improve the soil and the environment, she added. Agriculture is where “green” happens, she says.

Innovation has to happen on the farm level, says Dongoski, and he is seeing opportunities at the producer level. He cited growth in verticalization (think vertical farming), controlled-environment agriculture, lighting, and ventilation as innovations that can help producers be more involved upstream in the supply chain.

If you focus on the consumer’s needs, he says, it will lead to innovation and profit. One example: think personalization of food, such as 23andMe has done for family genealogy.

“You start to question the food pyramid,” Dongoski said. “We don’t need what the ‘average’ person eats. We should be able to personalize it. What nourishes me most and makes me healthy? That is where opportunity lies in the marketplace.”

This time is unprecedented but creates real opportunities throughout the sector. How brands stepped up during COVID will matter in the future, both experts said. The brands that win on getting to know consumers, will be sustained in the future.

“We’re in an era that will never move slower than today,” Dongoski said. It will continue to move faster, and that future includes all dimensions of agriculture, from the farm all the way to the table.”

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