Comment: The top 10 food stories of 2020

It was an action-packed 12 months for the agriculture and food sector

It was a year for the history books, indeed, and certainly filled with major food-related stories.

The year 2020 was as unusual as they get, with no shortage of stories. Some flew under the radar because of the pandemic, but this list is based on how some food-related stories will probably have long-term implications, whether they were related to COVID-19 or not.

At number 10, the apparent end of Tim Hortons’ identity crisis. For a few years, the iconic Canadian chain had clearly lost its bearings. The well-known restaurant chain still has a long way to go, but 2020 may have been the first year of a turnaround story. Alex Macedo, the former president, left in March, with barely anyone noticing. For years, their marketing and product development groups were simply out of touch with what was happening out in the field and in stores. But that changed this year. Should be interesting how things unfold in a hopefully calmer 2021.

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At number nine, Singapore became the first country to allow lab-grown meat to be commercialized. This may seem like a far-fetched idea right now for Canadians, but it is likely just a matter of time before these products come to Canada. How these products will be regulated is still a mystery, but the cost to produce synthetic meat in labs now is probably lower than doing it conventionally, and without the slaughter and the massive environmental footprint. This is going to pose a challenge for the livestock industry.

At number eight, the hero pay debacle in the spring was not handled well by grocers. Increasing wages only to cancel programs in June pointed to how ill designed these programs were. Canadians came to realize that essential jobs in the food sector are occupied by underappreciated, underpaid personnel. But food retailing is all about high volumes of sales with very low margins. A 10 per cent salary-base increase will make many stores unprofitable. Recognizing the hard work of front-line employees is critical, but it cannot be done permanently with current business models. Sobeys, Walmart, and other chains have opted to bring back “lockdown bonuses” which was the appropriate language to use. A good comeback.

At number seven, the apparent divorce between McDonald’s and Beyond Meat, the darling of plant-based diets. While McDonald’s recently announced its new McPlant products to be rolled out in 2021, Beyond Meat, that was working with the fast-food chain for a while, was not even mentioned in the release. McDonald’s resigned its commitment to the fundamentals of agriculture. A big deal for our farming community. Beyond Meat essentially learned the hard way that its “better than beef” rhetoric makes the company a liability. And McDonald’s made that crystal clear this year.

At number six, the sudden rise of e-commerce in the food industry. Online shopping has made the entire supply chain more democratic and accessible to consumers. Everyone can sell to consumers now, including farmers, processors, and farmers’ markets. In 2020, we have seen the food industry commit to the incredible sum of over $12 billion in investments over five years to support online strategies. When the year started, barely 1.7 per cent of food sales in Canada were conducted online. By the time we have finished with 2020, that number will have more than doubled, and almost half of Canadians intend to buy food online regularly after the pandemic.

At number five, the collapse of the food-service industry and consequent pivoting due to successive lockdowns were extremely painful to watch. We started the year spending about 36 per cent of our food budget on food consumed outside the home. In April, that went down to nine per cent. By midsummer, it likely went back up to about 25 or 26 per cent. But most restaurant operators are realistic. It will not go back to where it was any time soon.

At number four, farm gate waste. Because of disruptions created by the pandemic, millions of litres of milk were dumped, millions of perfectly healthy farm animals were euthanized across the country, lettuce, mushrooms disposed of due to lack of labour – the waste was unbearable and incomprehensible. Most Canadians were confused and had no idea what to think of the waste. Farmers were not to blame but our lack of focus on processing as a country was. Because of what happened this year, as the social contract between the food industry and consumers is being redesigned, farmers will need to be ready.

At number three, telecommuting, cooking, gardening and how we became more domesticated as a society. Getting people to stay home created a tsunami of changes. Working from home got us closer to our own kitchen which in turn changed our relationship with food. Most of us cooked, and almost 20 per cent of Canadians started a garden this year. Many got to experience life without restaurants, if only for a while. Only time will tell if our new habits stick.

At number two, amid the massive Black Lives Matter movement ignited by George Floyd’s dreadful assassination, PepsiCo opted to change the name and brand image of its Aunt Jemima pancake mix and syrup. Other food companies followed suit during the summer. As in many other sectors, food marketing clearly ended a racist-charged chapter in 2020 and how food will be marketed will change.

And the No. 1 food story of the year, the sudden panic buying and unnecessary hoarding of food during the first wave of the pandemic in the spring is an easy pick for the top spot. Beyond the ridiculousness of toilet paper hoarding, the impact of empty shelves was immense. Many Canadians would have experienced the emotions of food insecurity for the first time. Since then, behaviours, even policy have been impacted by the powerful images of bare grocery store shelves. Truly a moment in time.

It’s always difficult to make such a list, and anyone can add to or remove any of these stories. But this year’s list was one of the easiest to write in decades.

All the best in the new year.

About the author

Contributor

Sylvain Charlebois is senior director, Agri-Food Analytics Lab, and professor in food distribution policy, Dalhousie University.

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