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Jack Bobo - Futurist Food Chain: An outlook on the changing agricultural landscape

June 30, 2020

Jack Bobo believes that consumers have never cared more nor known less about how their food is produced.

As a futurist, Jack Bobo works to stay ahead of consumer trends by detecting the disruptors that trigger them. We spoke with him about the rapidly changing global food supply chain, what will impact future trends in agriculture and what he believes is in store for the future of food production and consumer habits.

The following is an edited transcript of the Ag Future podcast episode with Jack Bobo hosted by Tom Martin. Click below to hear the full audio.


Tom:            The agricultural landscape was rapidly changing even before the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the global food supply chain. The way we produce, distribute, and consume food will soon look very different. What lessons can we take away from this to guide how we feed the planet in the future?


                     As the CEO of Futurity, Jack Bobo makes it his business to stay ahead of the trends and detect the disruptors that trigger them. He joins us to share his insights on the challenges and opportunities awaiting us in the next era of agriculture. Welcome, Jack.


Jack:             Thank you for having me.


Tom:            First, if you would just help us calibrate our expectations. What is the role of a futurist?


Jack:             Yeah. Thank you. I appreciate that. Well, a lot of us think about the future, but we're not necessarily thinking about what's going to happen 10 or 20 years from now and what that's going to mean for our children and future generations. Part of what I try to do is to help people not just look ahead for next year, but how do you look around the corner of what's happening.


                     Sometimes, I describe it this way. Imagine you're in a car and you look in the rearview mirror. Well, that's what hindsight is, and then you look through the windshield. Well, that's foresight. You can see a certain distance down the road, but insight comes from the GPS because that's what tells us what's around the corners. For a futurist, that's what we try to do. We try to not just look at the trends that everybody else are talking about, but what are the forces that shape the trends. That's how you get ahead of a trend so you don't get run over by them.


Tom:            How do you identify those forces?


Jack:             Well, what we do is we look for signals. There's a science fiction writer named William Gibson and he would say, "The future is already here. It's just not widely distributed." So what we're doing is we're looking around at what are those innovations that have the opportunity to scale and have a broader impact. Once you do that then you want to try to figure out how do those signals connect to each other. Let me give you an example. Today, people think about robotics all the time and they think about things like AI, artificial intelligence. Well, when you take artificial intelligence and you put it together with a physical embodiment, well, that's what a robot is. You're putting together two ideas and forming something new.


                     Another way of thinking about it is people often worry about robotics taking away jobs and that's one order of magnitude separation, but what about the fact that we manufacture a lot of things in China because labor is cheap? Well, if robotics comes along and reduces the cost of labor, why are we even producing things in China anymore? Because then transportation becomes a much bigger part of the challenge. So why not bring all that production back to the United States or Ireland or other parts of the world?


                     What we're really trying to do is we're looking for those little things that other people are talking about and then we connect them in interesting ways and it gives us insights that we wouldn't have otherwise had if we try to follow that trend directly at the single line.


Tom:            This is fascinating, so you crunch data, you watch trends, you have all sorts of resources. Can you tell us what the trendscape, if you will, what it looked like as the world -- we're just beginning to come to grips with the meaning of the term "pandemic". What sorts of behaviors peculiar to such a crisis have you observed?


Jack:             Yeah. What I'm seeing is some trends are accelerating, some trends are decelerating, and some trends are being disrupted. An example of a trend that's being accelerated, well, we were already moving to online purchases of foods and other goods, but if you look at the month before the pandemic hit, only about 5% of Americans were purchasing their food online. A month or two later, 40% of people had tried purchasing food online. When it comes to things like online purchases, it's a huge barrier to get people to try that for the very first time. It's pretty easy to get them to try it again if they have a good experience. And so we actually just compressed five to ten years of growth in online food purchases into two months and that's something that's going to have a long-term impact. It changes the dynamics of where people purchase food. Of those purchases, nearly 50% of those people were purchasing online for the first time, and of those, Walmart captured about 60% of that opportunity. There are really interesting dynamics that are happening because of that and it's shifting the landscape.


                     If we look at food purchases before the pandemic, most people were beginning to eat food outside of the home, more than half of food purchases, but of course, after the pandemic, almost everybody's eating their food at home. This is a trend that has a potential of staying power and it shifts the direction that things were going and has moved them backwards to a different place. This is a trend that's going to have a long-term staying power because of the economic implications of the pandemic as well. Coming out of this, people aren't going to have as much disposable income, they're more likely to go back to basics, and this is going to have ripple effects through production, how we consume food, nutrition, and how we engage with food and culture as well.


Tom:            Let me pick up on that term "long-term consequences" because they're so fascinating to try to contemplate right now not only economic, not only social, but also mental and psychological. They're all linked to the myriad of changes that are being forced upon us by this outbreak. Do you see anything there of consequence?


Jack:             Yes. Well, it seems like every two weeks, there's a new sort of psychological aspect to this conversation. During the first couple of weeks, I was talking to people about panic buying and retail therapy, and then I started talking about are there food shortages happening, and then we were talking about food production squeezes. Now, we're beginning to look forward and say what are the longer term implications to our food supply and how we produce food that are going to come out of this, and so there are definitely consequences.


                     How people think about food, well, when you look at what people are purchasing, there's this trend back to basics. People are looking for foods that create comfort. Before the pandemic, big brands, big food was considered a bad thing. People were looking for small niche startups, things like that that were interesting and cool. Now, all of a sudden, the fact that you're buying brands that you were buying 20 years ago or when you were a child is bringing comfort to people, and so that's changing how they're thinking about the food brands that they buy.


Tom:            It's still very early in this crisis to be able to make definitive statements about what I'm about to ask, Jack, but I wonder if at this stage, you are already able to see what sorts of consequences are in store for Generation Z.


Jack:             I think people haven't quite wrapped their minds around the fact that this is the biggest economic impact since the Great Depression. Obviously, the Great Depression marked an entire generation of people who even today, their purchases and spending patterns are influenced by what happened to them back in the 1930s and early '40s. I don’t think most people grasp the fact that many young people today are going to have just as much of an impact on how they view the world.


                     For students who are at universities and are graduating this fall, but also for the next five or ten years, they're going to be entering the worst economic climate since the Depression in trying to find jobs. People were already struggling a little bit -- younger individuals -- to find jobs who've just been out of college, and so that's going to be dramatically more challenging for them. You have to remember that the income that you have in your first five or so years out of college really determines how much income you're going to have when you're retiring, so the impact on their financial well-being will reverberate through their entire lives.


Tom:            Okay. Let's turn to how COVID-19 is revealing some issues in the ways we get the right food to the right people at the right price. What have these disruptions shown us about our food systems?


Jack:             Well, I think they've definitely shown that there are some vulnerabilities in the way that we've been producing food. Historically, there has been an emphasis on the efficiency of our food supply and for really good reasons. If you go back 50 years, about a third of all the people in the world went to bed hungry every night. By 2020, only about 12% of the people on the planet were going to bed hungry, so efficiency has done an amazing job of raising people out of poverty and improving health and nutrition. On the other hand, that consolidation of our food supply system has an impact when there's a disruption to it.


                     If you have only a handful of companies that are producing the livestock products in the country and one facility is shut down, that can impact 5% of all production and then that becomes a bottleneck for the entire food system. A repercussion of that is that with that shortage then consumers end up paying more for their food, so just a 5% disruption can raise prices for the consumer.


                     On the other side of that equation though, livestock producers have fewer places to send their animals, and so all of a sudden, they're getting paid less money for each head of cattle. Think about that. Consumers are paying more and the people producing the food are getting paid less, and so that sends terrible signals to our market. It encourages people who produce food to produce less just at a time when we actually need more. So we're going to have to figure out how to maintain the efficiency of our system, which we need, but to add to it a resilience that's currently lacking.


Tom:            Is this what you're talking about when you described friction in our food systems or is that something else?


Jack:             Yes, that's one example of friction in our food system. Another would be when workers get sick, that's one example, but also drivers for transportation. If they're sick and they're not able to move the food from one place to another, the people that are working in the retail space are also a risk point or pressure point for this food system. Ports are also a place where there could be pressure, export markets, import markets. Each of these, if there's just a little bit of impact of the pandemic on them, just 1% or 2% then that has a ripple effect because it creates a friction that disrupts that entire chain from the farmer in Indonesia to your dinner plate.


Tom:            You touched on this just a few minutes ago, but I'm wondering if you could elaborate on it, how the consumer mindset has been changed and where you think it's going in regards to food trends.


Jack:             Well, one important outcome from this is that consumers are paying far more attention to our food systems than they ever had. Something that I often talk about is how consumers have never cared more nor known less how their food is produced. Well, that was true before the pandemic. Now, all of a sudden, people do have a better sense of how their food is produced, and because they're paying attention to that, that means that they're likely to ask for changes in that food system, so the relationship of the consumer to the food supply has been forever changed.


Tom:            Well, as a result of the stay-at-home imperative of the pandemic, farmers have been forced to euthanize millions of hogs and chickens, give away tons of unwanted potatoes or even plow them under, pour out enough milk to fill a small lake. Restaurants have closed of course all over the country that's thrown the food industry into chaos. It has convulsed the very specialized supply chains that are struggling to adjust. In light of all that, what does the future of farming and food production hold?


Jack:             Well, a lot of that goes to the question of the resilience and having diversified food systems so that if you're a farmer, you can sell not only to the retail market, but you can go to grocery stores or directly to the consumer. One outcome from this is that there are likely to be more direct consumer opportunities for farmers. That's a good thing because that gives farmers more opportunity to make a little bit more money when they're doing it, but it also helps them to explain to the consumer so that they can better understand how that food is produced. That's going to be a good connection that's coming out of all of this, but part of it is just the complexity of our food supply.


                     When we talk about having to euthanize animals, and pork industry is a good example of that, what people forget is that the animals that are going to slaughter this week, well, those sows were impregnated 300 days ago, and so the decisions that are being made today are decisions that really were being made 300 days ago. We need to keep that in mind because producers today have to decide, "Do I start to have the sows have a new litter today? Will there be a market for them a year from now?" People have to really think far into the future and that's just part of the complexity of our food supply, is people were thinking about this a year ago and now, we're seeing the benefits of their preparation, and what changes will they make though in this uncertain environment.


Tom:            Jack, at this early stage, who do you see coming out of this thing as winners and as losers?


Jack:             Well, I think that certainly online purchases are going to be big winners in all of this. The big food brands are coming out of this in a better position. Restaurants and small businesses are going to be hammered and that's going to be really unfortunate, and so I think we need to figure out ways of helping to maintain those smaller businesses because in many ways, small businesses are the engine of growth and it's going to be really impacted by all of this. I think the largest impact though still comes back to the financial implications for people that are going through such a massive financial challenge and that's going to again reverberate for a long time to come.


Tom:            Well, Jack, this is all so fascinating. I'd like to suggest that we revisit in about six months. Six months seems like another time zone for all of us. It's just incredible to think about what could happen in six months given all that's happened in only a few.


Jack:             Yes. Thank you. I really appreciate the conversation.


Tom:            Also, I have to imagine that going through life as a futurist must be pretty fascinating.


Jack:             Well, it's been a lot of fun because I get to work with a variety of organizations, associations, startups, big food brands, and I like to tell people that my personal mission is to de-escalate the tension in our food system so that we can all go about our business of saving the planet in our own way. I'm always excited to see what different organizations are doing in terms of their part of making the system better.


Tom:            Futurist and Futurity CEO, Jack Bobo. Thank you so much, Jack.


Jack:             Thank you.


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