Food supply chains in North America have become remarkably efficient, supplying an unprecedented variety of items at a low cost. The initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic and the severe restrictions on dining outside the home exposed the risk of a system that assumes predictable sales and highly reliable transportation systems. Despite early fears and disruptions, the food sector, from farm to retailer, has proven to be quite resilient in total, although there is a huge range of impacts on specific businesses. In the main, agricultural production for major commodities continued uninterrupted. Food processors maintained their output and adapted to a very different distribution opportunity. Consumers had no problem finding food, although there may have been disruptions in certain items at any point in time. A common theme in assessing the impacts across the six major food categories that were examined is the growing importance of understanding the whole supply chain. An important but as yet unresolved question is whether the pandemic experience results in a fundamental reassessment of supply chain vulnerabilities and risks that will cause changes in operating practices and strategies. Enhanced and more aggressive protocols related to worker health seem most likely. Insofar as current systems have tended toward a rather high degree of specialization in production and sales, another example might be greater consolidation of firms, diversification of products, and a greater diversity of customers. At the end of the supply chain there are questions about lasting changes in consumer food buying behavior, including more online shopping for basic foods, meal kits, or prepared meals. There might also be heightened interest in shorter supply chains and more local food systems. It is too early to safely anticipate the answers to these questions, but industry surveys and past behavior would suggest that this experience will have some lasting effects and consumer responses will be especially important in driving behavior.
Andrew Novakovic served on the faculty of the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University for 42, until his retirement in 2020. His primary interest has been dairy markets and policy, but he also is broadly interested in agricultural and food policy. Although officially retired, Dr. Novakovic maintains professional activity in teaching, public outreach and scholarship related to his field of expertise. He is an active participant in the International Dairy Federation and currently serves as an elected member of its Scientific and Programme Coordination Committee.