December 2020 – It has been quite a year. COVID-19 and a big election, of course. Also, though, the consequences of these events and the policies surrounding them have had direct impact on the produce industry. We see this obviously in the tribulations of mandated closures or capacity limits on restaurants and, in related windfalls, such as record sales in supermarkets, warehouse clubs and other food retailers.
For the most part, the produce industry has gone through this well. Although those who depended on supplying the foodservice sector have had to be quick and clever in redirecting their energies, not all could do it, and not all crops could be redirected. There were bad debts, and there will be more. But, the situation has reminded us all of the good fortune we have to be part of an industry so essential.
People who have worked just as hard, but had the misfortune to be involved in selling, say, business attire, all of the sudden saw their life’s work swept away. That is something we should not forget. Remember, “There but for the Grace of God go I.”
For The New York Produce Show and Conference, we prepared a series of videos, and we had the opportunity to chat with many prominent retailers. Each had his or her own story, yet the story was also the same. A story of how an industry and its people rose to a moment, how they pivoted, inspired their teams and kept our country fed. You can go to NYProduceShow.com and watch the recorded sessions yourself.
We can see, with vaccine doses being delivered every day, combining with natural immunity that comes from so many having had COVID-19, that there is the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. Yet we don’t know yet how this experience will have changed us and our world. The government has borrowed trillions, and we don’t know the burden of that debt. Children have been deprived of school, and we don’t know what that will mean for their lives or the future of the country. So many secondary effects are yet to be measured. College students may be able to take classes online, but what is lost in the human heart and soul when they lose the opportunity to interact and engage with their peers and professors?
Yet, we ought not to despair. Despite the many negatives of this situation, there are also reasons for hope. The new vaccines, such as Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines, both use synthetic messenger RNA (mRNA) — the first vaccines to ever do so and a consequence of the funding provided by the federal government’s massive, Manhattan Project like Operation Warp Speed. The government helped fund research and went ahead and bought doses of unproven vaccines. The truth, though, is that long before anyone knew about COVID-19, the mRNA technology was being tested against various types of cancer, lung disease and other ailments. It is highly likely that the massive investment made due to CORONA-19 will accelerate the use of this and other technologies. So this horrible pandemic may well lead to enormous advances in efforts to prevent disease.
There are other changes as well. The massive move toward grocery delivery and pickup is likely to survive this pandemic. It may be a little early to know precisely how things will work out but it seems very likely that many center store items will be delivered to homes long past this pandemic. Fresh produce, because of its variable nature, may turn out to be the centerpiece of much smaller stores. Walmart has been a big winner in the pandemic, partly because many of its non-food competitors have been closed. When they all reopen, and when many food and non-food items are purchased for delivery, without ever going through a physical store, will those giant stores make sense?
Why did Fresh Del Monte choose to launch its trademarked GMO PinkGlow Pink Pineapple as a direct-to-consumer product? Partly because the volume is low and the price is high. So it wasn’t really possible to launch in supermarkets. Some chains are also still afraid of GMO products. Even the retail rollout now is with small chains or just a division of larger chains. Maybe though, someone also thought it made sense to test consumer response to a direct-to-consumer product launch.
It is always darkest just before the dawn. So, perhaps, this annus horribilis, filled with terrible loss of life, of business, of opportunity… will yet be remembered not for its despair but for its prompt to innovation. For surely it is in moments of darkness that we most urgently seek the light and in moments of despair when we work hardest to find joy.
Despite the pandemic, the actual death statistics for the year seem likely to come in fairly normal. This is likely because many of the efforts we take to protect ourselves from COVID also protect us from the flu, traffic accidents and other maladies. It is extremely possible that the future will remember President Trump for, via Operation Warp Speed, heralding a new era of medical innovation, and this year will be remembered for launching new paths in food distribution. We can pray that the future will remember those who sacrificed this year as pioneers for a better time. pb