What Can Google Searches Tell Us About Changes in Consumer Behavior Toward Food and Plants Beyond COVID-19?

Google Trends is an online tool that allows you to analyze the popularity of Google Search inquiries. If you enter a search term, the site randomly samples Google Search’s massive database to produce indicators of Google users’ past interest in that term. For a given region and time range, the site calculates an index between 0 and 100 for each point in time and produces a chart of interest over time, among other indicators. If analyzing a single search term, a peak value of 100 indicates the point at which the term was most popular for the region and time range selected (that is, the point with the highest percentage of searches for that term out of all searches conducted). The other values represent search interest relative to the highest point on the chart. So, if point A has a value of 100 and point B of 50, the term was half as popular at point B than it was at point A.

I used this tool last year for a talk at the Southern Agricultural Economics Association in which I illustrated how people in the United States, including consumers, lobbyists, and policymakers, are actively searching online for information on key topics related to the food industry (such as the terms local food, food waste, food miles, cottage food, pasture-raised, cage-free, vegan, GMO, bioengineered, or gene editing), and how sometimes their interest starts picking up years before legislators pass major food bills into law. Recently, Dr. Tim Woods at the University of Kentucky asked me what one of my graphs would look like if I included observations from the COVID-19 era, a great question that I will try to answer in this post!

Figure 1 below shows the average Google Trends scores for the terms Local Food, Food Waste, Cottage Food, Online Groceries, and Home Gardening from 2004 to September 2020 so far. Figure 2 shows the Google Trends scores for the same search terms but disaggregated monthly from January 2018 to September 2020 so far. Because I am interested in search interest for these industry segments relative to themselves, which in this case makes any spikes more meaningful, I first entered each term in Google Trends and then combined the data, instead of comparing the different terms against each other.

 

 

 

Here are a couple of things that these figures might tell us: Figure 1 suggests that search interest in the terms Local Food, Cottage Food, Online Groceries, and Home Gardening in the United States has increased during 2020, with Online Groceries showing the most noticeable change relative to previous years, and that search interest in Food Waste has decreased during 2020. Many news outlets have reported that the pandemic has given consumers more reasons to eat local food, accelerated the trend toward online grocery shopping, and changed gardening forever, reports that might partly be behind the increases in search interest in these terms as people respond to media coverage. News outlets might also write more media coverage in response to high search interest.

Although the increase in online search interest might signal increased demand for information on these topics but may or may not translate into more actual transactions by the general U.S. public, some horticultural businesses might interpret this inflow of information as a sign of steady consumer demand for related products and services beyond 2020 and decide to pivot their businesses toward these industry segments. Yet, Figures 1 and 2 combined suggest that some of these segments might have more staying power than others. While search interest in Local Food, Online Groceries, and Home Gardening has increased during 2020, Figure 2 shows that their interest peaked between March and May of 2020 and dropped considerably in the following months. Interest in Cottage Foods was relatively low in March but peaked in July. After dropping, interest in Local Food and Cottage Food has increased, interest in Online Groceries has fluctuated, and interest in Home Gardening has continued to decline. A look at Google users’ search interest since 2004 to date (Figure 1) shows upward trends for Local Food and Cottage Food, an also upward but much flatter trend for Online Groceries, and a declining trend for Home Gardening. Interest in Local Food has increased over time at a pace slower than but similar to that in Cottage Food and Food Waste (as indicated by Local Food’s flatter trend), while interest in Online Groceries has increased over time at a pace much slower than that in Local Food (as indicated by Online Groceries’ flatter trend).

If pre-pandemic trends are any indication, it is possible that search interest in Local Food, Cottage Food, and Food Waste will continue to rise after the pandemic, maybe fueled by the recent interest in short local supply channels, the expansions to some states’ cottage food laws, and the growth in the upcycled food products industry. While search interest in Online Groceries has seen an upward trend since 2004, interest after COVID-19 might not grow as fast and dramatic as 2020 levels might suggest. It is also likely that interest in Home Gardening will wane beyond 2020. In a recent presentation at this year’s virtual Southern Outlook Conference, Dr. Ben Campbell from the University of Georgia reported that the Green Industry (which includes home garden centers, nurseries, turf, floriculture, among other sectors) has grown over the past decade and during COVID-19. He finds in a survey that 60% of respondents planted a garden, put in new turfgrass, or did some outdoor renovation like putting in new plant beds because they spent more time at home during the coronavirus pandemic. But he also warned that some firms might overproduce in 2021 because they might expect 2020 demand levels. Of course, many other factors like the effects of the pandemic-induced recession on the U.S. public’s income will influence the direction of these industry segments in the future, particularly for non-essential goods.

The Food Safety Modernization Act and the Marketing of Fresh Produce

The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) has important implications for the marketing of fresh produce in the United States. Under FSMA, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is charged with crafting, implementing, and enforcing most of the rules that constitute FSMA. In essence, FDA is introducing more frequent food safety inspections and, for the first time, science-based prevention-oriented mandatory standards for different stakeholders in the U.S. food supply chain. These standards pertain to five key areas: food preventive controls; produce safety; import safety; intentional adulteration of food; and sanitary transportation of food.

Since FSMA was enacted in 2011, several rules have slowly yet successfully evolved from the proposal stage to the final stage, with five of the FDA’s seven proposed foundational rules being finalized and published last year. These five rules relate to the areas of food preventive controls, produce safety, and import safety. A rule of particular importance to the fresh produce industry is the produce safety rule, Standards for the Growing, Harvesting, Packing, and Holding of Produce for Human Consumption, which was issued on November 13, 2015. 

For an overview of FSMA’s final foundational rules published so far and a discussion of their possible implications for the U.S. specialty crop industry in terms of costs and benefits, market structure, and public health concerns, click HERE.

 

Highlights of the Agricultural Act of 2014 for Specialty Crops

Important implications for the U.S. Specialty Crop industry can be found in several titles of the recently passed 2014 Farm Bill. Key programs to solve critical issues in the industry have been reauthorized and changes related to funding level and matching requirements have been incorporated in some of these programs. For instance, the Technical Assistance for Specialty Crops (TASC) program, the Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI), the Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI), the Farmers’ Market and Local Food Promotion Program (FMPP), and the Specialty Crop Block Grants program have been reauthorized. Three key farm bill programs that have formed the success of U.S. organic farmers over the past decade: The Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI), the Organic Production and Market Data Initiatives (ODI), and the National Organic Certification Cost-Share Program (NOCCSP), have also been reauthorized.

Moreover, changes in the definition of a “Retail Food Store” in the Nutrition title allow agricultural producers who market directly to consumers (i.e. Farmers’ Markets, CSAs, roadside stands) to accept SNAP benefits. The feasibility of redeeming these benefits through on-line and mobile transactions will be tested through pilot projects. If these pilot projects prove to be successful and are implemented nationwide, agricultural producers who sell directly to consumers may be able to accept SNAP benefits through on-line and mobile transactions starting in 2017. Overall, this bill contains considerable support for direct-to-consumer marketing, locally or regionally produced agricultural products, Farm-to-School efforts, organic agriculture, and food safety initiatives – all crucial topics for stakeholders in the U.S. Specialty Crop industry. For a summary of these and other important implications, click HERE.