Food systems in abnormal times: What technology is promising towards resilience and sustainability and which contradictions it brings along

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Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash

MIT Technology Review’s editor in chief, Gideon Lichfield, boldly explains the whys and hows of what we all apparently know or at least suspect: We’re not going back to normal! Just like in most other sectors of global economy, all stakeholders in food value chains, from farmers to consumers, will experience a totally different landscape as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. It is very difficult to predict how the day-after will look like amidst the peak of the crisis, but some very strong signals about the main trends that will emerge in the near foreseeable future are already visible.

The catalyzing powers of science and technology are more than necessary to survive the present and understand the future: We need all the “magic spells and potions” that research labs all over the world can provide; to save human lives and repair damages in society and economy and we need them as fast as possible. But we also have to be aware of the contradictions that we will face, and hopefully use science and technology in order to make the right decisions and take the right actions.

Vulnerable people all over the food value chains

Hunger may kill us before coronavirus”, is the fear of daily-wage earners in India. As usual, the true cost of the pandemic crisis will be borne by the weakest and food value chains all around the world are employing some of the poorest and most vulnerable people, from land workers and smallholders in rural areas to HORECA foot soldiers of the gig economy in mega-urban centers.

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Photo by Tung Minh on Unsplash

While governments are expected to take firm actions on maintaining social cohesion, grass-roots social economy networks can also work for rebuilding the connecting tissue of the value chain, possibly faster and in a more fair way. Food systems’ contribution to climate change is well understood by policy makers. Farmers, small food producers and distributors can indeed have an instrumental role in implementing Green Deal, but governments cannot ask them to go green when their accounts are on red. “Fair pay for fair play” seemed to be the answer well before the coronavirus pandemic.

Technology can offer plenty of tools towards the rationalization of food chains (blockchain, IoT, remote sensing, AI, robotic process automation, are only a few of the buzzwords to remember here) , where costs and benefits will be distributed in fair way, but governments need to provide a solid framework for transparency and trust and actively support local initiatives. Where and when price mechanisms don’t work, social economy needs to jump in and create supportive networks.

Local food chains and food sovereignty

In 2007, the Declaration of Nyéléni defined food sovereignty as the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. Increased demand for locally produced food is good news for foodtech companies that placed their bets on decentralized food systems, like distributed vertical farming models. Certainly short local supply chains will be among the dominant trends in the upcoming period, but we need to be careful so that this trend will not stop global trade and global cooperation. If people around the food value chain stop exchanging resources and knowledge at global level, the capacity of the system to produce safe and adequate food at affordable prices will be seriously undermined.

Assuming that we truly want to support local food chains, the first step is to bring technology and scientific knowledge closer to the places where food is produced. Solutions need to be cheap for farmers and they need to arrive quickly. Empowering initiatives that germinate farming communities with hacker ethos can yield good results, but the mobilization of human factor will be the critical success factor.

Social distancing and ecommerce

Social distancing affects businesses and business models that rely on people coming together and emphatically reminds us of the social dimensions of food. Restaurants, hotels, airports, shopping malls and all other places were food is sold in massive quantities will face huge damages and auxiliary industries need to quickly pivot to digital business models, like virtual farm markets to reach customers. Small players in the food business that were relying on traditional value networks will need to go online to survive. Again it is necessary to provide them with open source tools and community support to pivot in the most painless way possible.

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Photo by LOGAN WEAVER on Unsplash

But let’s put the issue on pragmatic dimensions: Closure of many physical outlets doesn’t automatically mean a boom in ecommerce. Some product sectors like healthcare, grocery retail and consumer electronics are indeed making more profits but others, that were massively doing business online, like tourism or b2b wholesale will face negative consequences in their digital revenue streams. The volume and nature of the damage is difficult to assess now, but vibrations affecting all players in retail economy are expected to be intense. While many mega-brands of traditional retail are looking for ways to keep their employees around, workers of gig economy are also raising a strong voice towards public health and worker safety.

Labor shortages and robots

The pandemic crisis offers interesting insights about the correlation between automation and resilience in food systems. Farmers producing staple crops, including wheat and rice, do so with mechanized tools that already limit human-to-human contact and will be in the forefront of securing that widespread food shortages are unlikely anytime soon. But higher-value and more specialized crops face a greater number of hurdles. These foods — such as some fruits and organic produce grown by smaller-scale farms — generally require more labor. Without an adequate workforce, growers may have to skip important plant protection activities or not manage to fully harvest their yield, resulting in important income losses. In the mid-to-long term it is reasonable to assume that farmers will invest in affordable robotic technologies, but we are certainly not ready to fully deploy fruit-picking robots in the next couple of growing seasons.

Smart business models can also help in achieving good return-on-investment for robots in the food sector. If Robotics-as-a-service (RaaS) was ready to eat the world of work a year ago, now we can adjust our expectations to the new reality and hope that at least it may ensure access to technologies for groups of farmers, cooperatives and other collective forms of growers’ organizations, traditional or virtual, to convince them investing in robots for resilience and sustainability.

Pressures on livestock factory farming

Although not everybody in the scientific community sees a straightforward link between factory farming and new and dangerous forms of flu, many scientists have been raising the red flag on livestock sector for quite some time. In 2016 Wallace claimed that big farms make big flu and tracked the ways influenza and other pathogens emerge from an agriculture controlled by multinational corporations.

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Photo by Amauri Acosta Montiel on Unsplash

Factory farming has already been receiving criticism from citizens for treatment of animals, environmental footprint and use of antibiotics. Leaders in the meat processing sector understand this trend very well, and they invest heavily in plant-based protein and lab-grown meat technologies. But what about the weakest links of the chain? While Covid-19 will accelerate the market expansion of non-meat proteins, farmers and workers in the livestock industry need a systemic supportive framework that will allow them to pivot to more sustainable practices and new activities. A fundamental change in food systems is needed, but banishing companies and people out of the market without any plan for adaption will only make things worst in times when maximum mutual trust is needed to rebuild economy.

Availability of investment capital for innovation

Since we turn to technology and science to help us overcome the challenges of the pandemic, we should not forget how the development of technologies is funded. Two main sources for funding innovation are government grants and risk capital from private investors. It goes without saying that science should be among the main recipients of massive investments from government, and we already have strong voices advocating this direction, but those investments will not be enough. As much as we need scientists in their labs, we also need startup founders and employees to continue inventing new products, services or business models. Measures to ensure that great startups of all sectors (including agtech and foodtech) will survive the crisis and help rebuild the economy, should not be limited on the balance sheet of the companies but focus equally on talent; startup employees. Bpi in France is leading the way by taking good care of both, but smaller startup ecosystems might be more vulnerable to turbulences and of course startup founders are also evaluated on how fast they can adapt to the new circumstances.

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Photo by Matt Palmer on Unsplash

Sequoia is widely regarded as Silicon Valley’s most prestigious venture capital firm. After all it is the one firm that invested in many of the tech companies that shape modern world, including Apple, Google, Oracle, PayPal, LinkedIn, YouTube, Instagram, Yahoo! and WhatsApp.

Business can afford to mimic biology and agree that only the most adaptable to change will survive; these principles are well accepted by those who are involved in risky investments for living. However, food systems have many social functions to perform as well, and social Darwinism cannot be the answer of humanity to this pandemic. If we move fast without leaving anyone behind, we may manage to emerge from the crisis ready to rebuild our food systems on more fair and sustainable foundations.

I am privileged to work in flagship European projects for the digital transformation of the agrifood sector, like IoF2020, SmartAgriHubs and agROBOfood. While doing my job, I interact on daily basis with many smart and purpose-driven people who work in different position in the European food chain. This community is full of concerns but also full of ideas on how to survive on difficult times and what to change to avoid difficult times in the future. Many of these ideas inspired me to share my thoughts, but all the views expressed here are mine.

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Innovation Funding | Agtech & Foodtech | Business Development | Capacity Building

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