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What does COVID-19 Mean for Food Production and Consumption Habits?

By Adithya Sundar

In March 2020, families were flooding supermarkets, clearing aisles, and overstocking on basic goods. In just a few months, though, the prices of foods have gone back to what they originally were. However, that doesn’t mean that the effects of COVID are gone. To understand how food manufacturing and consumer habits have changed, it is necessary to go back to where it starts – the farm.

Our food sector is supplied by domestic production, imports, and what is there in storage. The food production that is done mechanically has continued through COVID with little disruption, which includes staple crops such as wheat and grains. The US domestic production of these grains is good enough to even maintain robust exports since they are not labor-intensive operations. Furthermore, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute, there is enough storage of most goods that calms the fear of running out of food. However, a big problem is something out of our reach: imports. The United States relies on foreign suppliers for around 20 percent of food. Fish and dairy imports have been severely impacted, and some countries are even practicing food protectionism, where they suspend their exports in order to protect their own food supplies. So the main problem with food that we are facing comes with nonstaple, specialized foods which is why we see these products experience shortages and higher prices.

Imports are not the only problem with these “specialized” foods, though. These types of foods like nuts and berries and even generic organic foods often require constant maintenance and a lot of human labor. Due to distancing rules, this prevents farmers from employing people to work in close quarters, which slows production down significantly, and more time means that those products become more expensive. Many of these specialty food farms across the US are small local farms that sell produce through restaurants or farmers’ markets. However, both of these are seriously stifled due to distancing rules, so farmers have limited places to sell these goods.

Prior to the pandemic, roughly half of food spending was away from home. Now, only 10 percent is, according to a professor of agriculture, food, and environment at the Friedman School. Demand for food is now coming primarily through grocery stores, and while big farms have the technology to switch their products to be suitable for groceries, many smaller farms cannot adjust to this change.

Canned food is making a comeback

Eating ready-made and canned meals was a thing of the past. New developments in healthier and organic options have taken over simple convenience in recent years. However, many people are struggling to constantly cook for their family since restaurants have only allowed takeout. COVID has led to more people reaching for frozen and processed foods rather than fresh food. Campbell’s soup sales went up nearly 60 percent when compared to last year, and this consumer trend is helping big food companies that excel in large scale and high processed foods. This is partly due to the early panic where consumers thought they had to stock up on food with extended shelf life like canned soup and beans. Part of this trend is even psychological since consumers are relaxing their dietary rules to relieve stress by finding comfort in familiar flavors like processed junk food.

Another major reason for this trend has to do with many consumer’s incomes. The pandemic has placed a lot of workers out of jobs, and with lower incomes, consumers can’t afford to pay extra for fresh or organic foods. Canned foods have always been cheap, and these types of companies are even using this opportunity to remarket their brand as having better flavor and nutrition than before while maintaining affordability.

Plants are the new meat

Although meat production hasn’t slowed down much from the pandemic, there are other reasons to be cautious of meat right now. Many slaughterhouses are located in hotspots for coronavirus in the US. One plant had an astonishing 730 cases of the virus, equating to roughly 60 percent of the workers. Sick workers led to mandatory plant shutdown which caused some farmers to forcibly stop the reproduction of animals due to the backlog. However, the demand for meat during the pandemic hasn’t slowed down. Meat is a staple of the American diet and sales are recently 28 percent higher than they were before COVID, according to Nielsen.

Consumers are now experimenting with plant-based meats. This is in part due to fears of slaughterhouses and meat shortages, but many consumers also want to excite their quarantine lives by trying something novel. With the competitive prices of plant-based meats now that meat prices are higher, consumers experiment like baking their own bread and trying to cook “fake” meat. Plant-based meats are not just successful because of the pandemic, though. Beyond Meat had an increase of 141 percent in revenue in their first quarter prior to COVID when compared to last year. In general, plant-based meat sales were up 30 percent from December to January when compared to last year, while meat sales only increased 1 percent.

The plant-based meat market was already rising but is also one of the few markets to use the pandemic to its advantage. Companies are currently expanding how many stores they are available in. Impossible Foods have put their products in over 3000 stores now compared to the 200 stores in January, and Beyond Meat is in approximately 25,000 stores across the US and has even expanded to international markets. The demand for plant-based meats has exploded so much in fact that Beyond meat is expected to hit its total sales projection for 2030 by the end of this year alone.

So how long will these effects last? If compared to similar economic recessions where the consumer trend drifted towards home food to save money, then it is expected that the effects will last around a year. Farms that were significantly affected will eventually go back to normal production, and prices will drop as a result. However, something that won’t change is that the plant-based meat companies won’t stop pushing their products, and consumers won’t stop eating them either. Studies from The Economist show that a quarter of Americans from ages 25-34 are vegetarians, so there is a large audience for meat alternatives. Furthermore, cows produce a very large amount of greenhouse gas and research verifies that a plant-based diet is the biggest contribution people can make towards global warming. Although people may lose the sense of a novel product in quarantine, the plant-based meat market will continue to expand well past the pandemic.

Adithya Sundar

Adithya is currently a junior in T&M Class XXVI studying Chemical Engineering. This summer, he worked as an R&D Intern at Hart Dairy.

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