What risks remain? Q&A with Brett Sciotto

After every operation, the military conducts an After-Action Review (AAR) that examines what went well, what didn’t and how to improve for the future. Disruptions and challenges experienced across the agri-food value chain due to the global pandemic underscored the importance of conducting this exercise as the industry works to refine long-term strategies and build resiliency in preparation for a future crisis.

Leveraging its military intelligence background, Aimpoint Research® partnered with the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives (NCFC) in late 2020 and early 2021 to lead a Pandemic AAR & Resiliency Planning exercise. Aimpoint Research CEO, Brett Sciotto, has been speaking with leaders across the agri-food value chain about the results of this work and which remaining vulnerabilities should be prioritized in resiliency plans for both individual organizations the entire industry.

One of those persistent vulnerabilities is supply chain disruption. In addition to the pandemic, energy grid failures in Texas and the recent pipeline security breach on the East Coast have showcased how disruptive supply chain challenges can be to the entire country and why it is essential to examine this vital element of the agri-food system.

What were the biggest challenges to the agri-food supply chain during the pandemic and how were those challenges overcome?

Brett Sciotto, Aimpoint Research CEO
Brett Sciotto, Aimpoint Research Founder & CEO

"The AAR and Resiliency Planning exercise we conducted with over three hundred senior leaders across the agri-food value chain revealed that while every organization had some level of unique challenge, there were some foundational challenges that were universal. 

First and foremost was the difficulty gaining clarity about the situation. There was so much misinformation about the true nature of the virus and the proper response that critical decision-making often took longer than it should have, which ultimately made it harder to be proactive. 

The inconsistent government response and communication compounded the confusion. Fierce partisanship and a wholesale lack of coordinated mandates coming from different states and levels of government made it incredibly challenging for leaders to act quickly. In some cases, local government officials tried to shut down facilities deemed critical by the federal government. Many agri-food leaders were not sure who really had authority to put requirements on their organizations, and a lack of sufficient biosecurity protocols and equipment put labor forces at risk and hindered operations.

Finally, the need to communicate more frequently to remote employees and customers tested IT infrastructure and highlighted the great divide between those with high-speed internet access and those without. Notwithstanding the countless challenges organizations faced through the pandemic, our research clearly indicated that the more proactive a leader was, the more successful their organization emerged from the crisis."

What risks remain specific to the agri-food supply chain?

"While we may be through the initial crisis, supply chain disruptions that were a year in the making are now being felt by many across the industry. Volatility in the commodity markets and rapidly increasing cost of goods will put significant pressure on farmer financial resiliency over time. The high prices in most commodities today are helpful, but markets are not stabilized and the rapid increase in cost of goods could make a market downswing incredibly difficult for many farmers who, up until recently, were struggling to make ends meet without government intervention.

There are also some evolving consumer patterns that were accelerated by the pandemic that will structurally change the agri-food value chain for the long-term. Ecommerce and new grocery fulfillment models will require significant logistical changes and a shifting of how much food flows to food retail versus food service. 

It is also important to note that we have not fully solved our biosecurity challenges, nor our ability to communicate the way we need to in a crisis because of inconsistent rural broadband. There is also little evidence that our government is more prepared to act consistently in a future crisis. We must not take a victory lap – we must continue to put the energy into building more resiliency across agri-food."

What should agri-food leaders and organizations be doing to address these risks?

"Over three hundred leaders from across agri-food joined Aimpoint Research to answer this question in February. It came down to six priority actions: 

  • Build better protocols for how industry and government can work together to navigate a crisis in the future;
  • Develop a better mechanism for maintaining consumer trust of our food supply during a crisis; enhance biosecurity across the supply chain;
  • Expand our ability to communicate and collaborate across the industry and to our employees and customers;
  • Build better supply chain diversity and redundancy;
  • Complete better contingency planning at all levels to include helping our farmers prepare for future challenges. 

Leaders across agri-food see the need to broaden relationships, collaborate, plan together and wargame future crises to be better prepared. I regularly say in my speeches - food security is foundational to national security. We must take an almost military approach to protecting agri-food in a crisis. 

I am thankful for the tremendous leadership across our industry that helped our nation and the world navigate this global pandemic. We proved our resiliency. However, we also learned some incredibly valuable lessons that will make us stronger. We must not rest on our laurels but continue to transform agri-food to ensure food security and the ability to project American food power around the world."