Looking Forward: Top Food and Agriculture Stories for 2020
As we make our predictions for the top food and agriculture stories for 2020, one thing is clear: climate change is the thread connecting it all. It’s a sad and unavoidable truth that climate change will impact our food system this coming year: marine populations will struggle to reproduce — as scallops and mussels did this year — and extreme weather will kill livestock on factory farms and cause their manure lagoons to breach — as they did in the Southeast this year. Rains and flooding and erratic frosts will make the planting and harvesting of crops extremely challenging. We are hopeful, though, that this year will also bring continued awareness about the role that agriculture plays in contributing to climate change, and continued investment in solutions.
Regenerative Agriculture Seen As a Solution to Climate Change
You may have been seeing a new term around lately: regenerative agriculture. Last year we predicted it would rise in popularity, and we were right. As more people began to make the connection between climate change and agriculture, regenerative practices were held up by scientists, farmers and big food companies alike as part of the solution. This past year, following on the heels of Danone (maker of Dannon Yogurt), both General Mills and Applegate Farms (owned by giant Hormel Foods) announced various large-scale commitments to regenerative practices in the coming decade. An ag-tech startup called Indigo Agriculture launched an initiative to sequester one trillion tons of carbon dioxide by paying farmers it works with to adopt regenerative practices.
We are hopefully predicting that more big food companies will realize that their own success relies upon better land stewardship and will get on board with regenerative agriculture — preferably with transparent, verifiable commitments. We are also eager for continued investment in large scale studies that demonstrate regenerative agriculture’s potential.
Deforestation Gets Tackled
Horrifying images of the burning Amazon flooded social media this summer as Brazilian farmers, capitalizing on a hands-off president and an international marketplace hungry for beef and soy, slashed and burned millions of acres of rainforest into new farmland. Sustainable food advocates were quick to point out that this is the reality of the expanding footprint of industrial beef production, and that it isn’t confined to the Amazon, either. Similar stories of agriculture-driven deforestation in Indonesia appeared in the news this fall.
There are a number of promising pushes for positive change. Both New York City and Los Angeles have introduced city-wide resolutions to divest from industries involved in deforestation, and private industry has been vocal as well: top investment funds and multinationals have publicly called on Brazil to stop deforestation. While there’s plenty of reason to be skeptical of corporate commitments to cleaner supply chains, some of the world’s major food companies continue to make measurable progress on more sustainable production. In 2020 there will hopefully be more commitments and better investigation of supply chains.
Hemp Hits the Mainstream
Hemp farming was legalized in the last Farm Bill but spent most of 2019 in regulatory limbo. Many farmers jumped at the chance to add a crop that could tap into an emerging market and serve as a piece of a regenerative plan. Those crops were destined to go into both foodstuffs and wellness products, but many farmers struggled to get the crops to succeed and/or struggled to find financing or a market for them. As Hemp Industry Daily put it “Hemp, like any other crop, has its nuances – it’s not like sowing another field of corn or soybeans or wheat. With no crop protection or insurance, the plant isn’t ideal for the risk-averse.” One peculiarity: the boundary between hemp and marijuana is determined by the amount of intoxicating THC in the plant, and weather and other factors can sometimes push the THC content above acceptable levels, forcing farmers to destroy their suddenly-illegal crop.
With regulations likely to be ironed out in 2020, and with farmers hopefully finding their footing: we are likely to see an increase in hemp products, including foodstuffs like hemp milk, hemp hearts, hemp oil and processed foods like veggie burgers and nutrition bars.
The Imperiled Family Farm Makes the Ballot
Small family farms have had a rough few years, and this only continued in 2019. Harsh weather conditions, widespread crop failures, and a January government shut-down that delayed USDA loan and insurance payments all coalesced into a uniquely difficult year for small farmers across the country. Much of this pain stems from a regulatory and subsidy environment that favors consolidation into large-scale, industrial farms. Nowhere is this pressure more strongly felt than in dairy, where farmers are getting little sympathy from the USDA — Sonny Perdue, speaking to Wisconsin dairy farmers in August, said that “In America, the big get bigger and the small go out.” As small farms close, so do the businesses and institutions that serve their communities, widening the epidemic of rural poverty and isolation and threatening the local food networks we all depend on.
In 2020 the plight of small farmers will be on the ballot: several of the democratic candidates have included anti-consolidation and rural revitalization efforts in their platforms for 2020, along with supply-management programs that would offer better prices and more reliable markets for smaller dairy producers.
Cattle Ranchers Will Keep Fighting Big Meatpackers
Cattle producers in the US were big supporters of the Trump campaign in 2016, but they haven’t gotten much in return. As the “Big Four” Meatpackers — Tyson, JBS, Cargill and Marfrig — have increased their control over the slaughter and packing market to 85%, cattle producers have watched the prices they get for their cows steadily decline. While Sonny Perdue directed the USDA to investigate the meatpacking industry for possible price manipulation earlier this year, cattle producers demanded further action, taking to Twitter with the hashtag #FairCattleMarkets and gathering in Omaha at the “Stop the Stealin’!” rally. Among their top priorities: restoring and strengthening Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) to ensure consumers know when they’re buying American beef (currently beef that is raised elsewhere but processed here can still be labeled as Product of the USA), and reestablishing federal oversight on meatpackers to prevent them from discriminating against smaller, family-run operations.
While COOL didn’t make it into NAFTA’s replacement, the USMCA, in December, cattle producers are dedicated to keeping up the fight for fair prices, and they may find support in Congress from Senator Cory Booker, who recently introduced legislation that would restore COOL and phase out CAFOs by 2040.
Agricultural Labor Laws Will Improve
The Trump administration’s hard-line on immigration enforcement has created a fearful and hostile environment for the undocumented workers who make up a large percentage of the labor force on farms and in food processing. The revelation that the August ICE raid on a Mississippi poultry plant might have been retaliation for complaints of discrimination and unsafe conditions illustrates how fear of ICE allows exploitative producers to intimidate undocumented workers into accepting low wages in unsafe conditions. In light of all this, fewer and fewer undocumented immigrants are showing up to work, and this has caused a serious labor shortage on farms across the country. Even the traditionally conservative Farm Bureau noted the toll of current immigration policy on American farms and advocated granting legal status to currently-undocumented workers.
Lawmakers came together this fall to create the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which would change the rules around seasonal labor and allow undocumented workers and their families legal status if they were full-time farmworkers before 2019. The bill, which has already passed the House, is a starting point to addressing the labor needs of farmers and providing significant legal protections for farmworkers and their families.
There Will Be a Food Packaging Revolution
Last year we predicted — and it feels good on many levels to be right — that the rage against single-use plastic and other food packaging would continue to rise. This year, companies and governments made many changes; Trader Joe’s committed to reducing plastic produce packaging while cities and states banned plastic bags, plastic straws and Styrofoam takeout containers. New solutions for consumers are also taking off, like Loop, which makes it possible to purchase big brand products in reusable packaging. And the popularity of VSCO Girls and their reusable water bottles might signify that millennials and Zoomers are ON IT.
We predict this trend will continue to soar, with more fast-casual chains rolling out reusable bowl options, more big brands joining initiatives like Loop and more innovations in food packaging like food waste being converted into biodegradable plastic.
Youth Climate Movement Will Continue Gathering Momentum
Greta Thunberg’s transatlantic voyage to address to the UN attracted both praise and ire, but her message struck a chord as millions of people organized worldwide to participate in the largest climate strikes in history in late September. Greta’s movement started as a school strike, and youth are increasingly central to mass movement on climate action. Young climate activists across the US are revitalizing the push for climate action on all scales, local to international. Food and agriculture are also on the agenda — one of the largest organizations, the Sunrise Movement, is committed to advancing the green New Deal, which prioritizes regenerative agriculture as a key component in a cleaner economy.
In 2020 we can expect to see these movements gain traction as they keep putting the pressure on legislators to pass climate-focused initiatives. One way to make sure this happens? Find your local chapter and add your voice.
Food Waste Fixes Will Proliferate
2019 was the year people realized that uneaten food isn’t just a waste of money and resources, it’s also a source of Greenhouse Gas Emissions, making it a major contributor to climate change. Maine Rep. Chellie Pingree is pushing for her Food Recovery Act to be signed before 2019’s end. This wide-ranging legislation aims to reduce food waste at the consumer, farm grocery and institutional level by doing things like standardizing the confusing expiration dates that cause us to throw out nearly a pound of food per person every day.
2020 will see the implementation of a lot of municipal compost programs, like the mandatory food business composting that just rolled out in New York City. Consumers are excited to chip away at food waste too, as demonstrated by the continued growth of food waste-derived food and beverage products like cocoa husks, spent coffee beans and leftover brewers mash. While some of these products, like the “ugly produce” subscription box, have left critics questioning if they’re really solving anything, the momentum around reducing food waste is still an exciting prospect for 2020.
Plant-based Meat Will Change Our Food System — Or Not, Really
In late 2018 we predicted fake meat would continue to rise in popularity and accessibility and that was definitely how the year played out. By now, we are seeing nearly all of the major fast food chains offering a plant-based option and most major supermarkets have something plant-based to sell alongside traditional beef burgers and hotdogs. But there also grew a backlash of critics pointing out that the burgers are highly processed and full of sodium, and while they might produce far less methane and CO2 than industrial beef, they still rely on business-as-usual commodity farming and industrial processing. Also, recent statistics show people are still eating meat in record numbers, despite the rise of the plant-based alternatives.
The biggest question remains: can the rise in popularity of these plant-based alternatives chip away meaningfully at industrial beef production and consumption? In 2020 we will start to see who will benefit the most from this new market: climate? Eaters? Investors?
Beans Are Cool and Will Get Even Cooler
While plant-based meat alternatives got a lot of press this year, another plant protein is quietly attracting fans: the humble pot of beans. Beans, a staple of food cultures worldwide, haven’t always gotten star billing in the US, relegated to a barbeque-baked backseat behind meatier mains. But that’s starting to change, as chefs and home cooks are embracing beans as a hearty way to fill up with less meat — and a way to use their beloved Instant Pots. The rise of heirloom beans, from purveyors like Rancho Gordo and Elegant Beans, is also fueling interest by providing options a little more exciting than your standard pinto.
Expect to see more speckled shells, unique textures, and novel flavors of legume on shelves and menus next year.