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Better for you, better for the planet – food after Covid

Covid-19 has disrupted the food’s sector’s supply chains and is set to change consumer eating habits for good says Mayssa Al Midani, CIIA, Senior Investment Manager of the Pictet-Nutrition fund

Spending an entire day in the fresh air and sunshine,  having the freedom to roam in outdoor space of some 108 square feet, and being able to feast on delicious wildflowers in open pastures untouched by pesticides or herbicides. This is the leisurely daily routine that the “girls” – or hens – at Texas-based food company Vital Farms enjoy in return for producing their highly prized eggs. It’s a scene you’d expect to come across in a small organic farm, the sort run by a family committed to ethical production. Vital Farms certainly started out that way. But it is now going big. So big in fact that, last year, the ethical food company secured a valuation of USD1.3 billion in one of the sector’s most-anticipated initial public offerings.

The food industry will soon be full of companies like Vital.

That’s because the firm’s success owes much to some powerful trends unleashed by Covid-19. Two stand out. First, food producers are having to re-configure their supply chains after the pandemic disrupted global trade. It’s an environment where complex international sourcing and distribution networks are under pressure and under scrutiny.

Second, the food industry now has to cater to the needs of a more demanding customer base – one that cares less about convenience and more about the nutritional and ethical aspects of what it buys and eats.

In a few years, the food industry could look very different, according to members of the Nutrition Strategy Advisory Board. It might consist almost entirely of companies that possess only the strongest social and environmental credentials.

Covid: shaken and stirred

The pandemic has unleashed turmoil across a wide range of industries. Food suffered more than most. Lockdowns and border closures disrupted the distribution of agricultural products and also led to severe labour shortages at food processing facilities. At the same time, Covid-19 triggered a change in consumer behaviour.

A survey by consultancy Accenture conducted during the pandemic found that consumers increasingly prioritised health and sustainability when deciding what to buy.In the UK alone, sales of ethical food and drink are forecast to rise by 17 per cent to GBP9.6 billion by 2023, having already grown more than 40 per cent in the five years to 2018.2 In response, the food industry is investing heavily in a wide range of high-tech solutions. Many of which are geared to strengthening supply chains, raising production standards and reducing food waste.

It is perhaps in the meat industry where the pandemic-induced transformation is particularly acute.

Slaughterhouses and meat-processing plants found themselves in the frontline of the Covid battle after cluster of virus cases emerged in facilities worldwide. In the US for example, more than 80 beef and pork packing plants in the US reported virus outbreaks between April and June 2020. By mid-May, meat production fell 40 per cent below 2019 levels.3 But keeping facilities safe and virus free isn’t the industry’s only problem. The pandemic also brought into relief the health and environmental costs associated with meat consumption and production. Studies have shown a strong link between obesity and Covid.4 At the same time, consumers have been reminded of meat’s outsized environmental footprint. Livestock farming is responsible for 15 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions and accounts for some 29 per cent of the world’s freshwater use.5

It is for these reasons that Pictet Asset Management’s Advisory Board members expect meat consumption to fall and healthier alternative meats and plant-based diets to become more popular.

Alternative meat producers such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Food have already raised hundreds of millions of dollars in funding in recent years. Their expansion has also seen them seal agreements with major supermarkets and fast food chains to sell their high-margin products. To our Advisory Board members, this represents only one aspect of the meat revolution.

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