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How digital solutions can help solve global food problems

food - A farmer plants potatoes in his field in Tilloy lez Cambrai, France, April 18, 2016.

Climate change is impacting vital food crops all over the world. Image: REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol.

Sang-Hoon Shin
Chief Executive Officer, Greenlabs
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  • Urgent systems-based solutions are needed to tackle global food problems.
  • Current innovations are not fulfilling their potential in the food value chain.
  • Digital platforms can build sustainable, resilient and productive food systems.

In an era of globalization where agri-food production and trade flows have increased to unprecedented levels, many South Koreans were surprised when McDonald’s notified its customers that French Fries would be replaced with McNuggets or cheese sticks due to climate change and supply chain issues. Likewise, KFC notified their Singaporean customers that “French Fries are on annual leave to find themselves".

Many franchises in Asia import potatoes from Idaho, a major potato-producing state in the US, but the region was affected by recent droughts and heat waves. Furthermore, the pandemic caused both labour shortages during the potato harvesting season and logistical chaos from global shipping volume surges. More businesses are inevitably learning from the crisis to adapt and improve preparedness for future shocks.

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Building resilient food supply chains

The fact that 30% of the world's population is susceptible to food insecurity is alarming but a reality given the limited availability and affordability of food accelerated by the ongoing pandemic and war in Ukraine. Macroeconomics such as energy prices, exchange rates, interest rates, and other factors are unstable. Interconnected pillars of the agri-food economy are severely impacted including input supplies, production, trade, market prices, logistics, and infrastructure. So how do we overcome such challenges?

The maths is simple when it comes to combating disruptions to food supply chains. To increase preparedness for systemic risks and identify opportunities to strengthen collaboration among all stakeholders, the global community must identify weaknesses, choke points, and vulnerabilities in current agriculture and food systems, as well as critical services that we can transform with innovative solutions. In other words, the global community can restructure the food supply chains to become more resilient to risks such as climate change.


What is the World Economic Forum doing to help ensure global food security?

The good news is that many innovations are already taking place throughout the food supply chain. Production, platform, distribution, and environment, social and governance (ESG) are notable areas where global innovators have taken up the challenge to revolutionize. Production could concentrate on the development of smart farms and input supplies. Platform services could include information, analysis, and a community-based forum to aggregate data and derive insights. Distribution services are primarily concerned with transportation, storage, and sales promotion. ESG businesses offer solutions that are in line with emissions reduction goals.

However, most of above-mentioned innovations are incomplete as they are not fully-integrated and provide limited services. Meaning, there is no major tech company that can successfully provide end-to-end solutions for all stakeholders involved, from the producers to the consumers, leveraging on full potential of today's available technology. It may be an understatement that, agriculture being the sector experiencing the lowest advancements of digitization, requires coalitions among the industry leaders, both from private and public sectors, and innovators to breakthrough to the next stage, so called the fourth industrial revolution.

Digital advancement by sector. Digital platforms can build sustainable, resilient and productive food systems.
Digital advancement by sector. Digital platforms can build sustainable, resilient and productive food systems. Image: McKinsey

Digital innovation can improve food production, distribution and consumption

Many digital solutions are created with the intention of alleviating potential users' existing pain points. It is also widely acknowledged that inducing behavioural change is nearly impossible if the level of innovation, particularly in terms of ensuring user convenience and trust, does not exceed that of current business practices. However, the agriculture sector, which has made the least progress in digitalization in terms of digital assets, usage, and labour, presents a unique set of challenges that require innovators to start from scratch, with data collection, as opposed to other relatively digitally advanced sectors.

By connecting the dots, data-driven digital platforms will enable the full potential of innovations and ensure transparency across the value chain. This can be significantly accelerated if incumbents, or industry leaders, can transparently share the standardized data and insights needed to analyze and introduce applications that benefit the industry as a whole. Some applicable examples include autonomous farming machines, blockchain, drones, robots, and smart apps that can improve all aspects of production, distribution, and consumption and usher in the fourth industrial revolution.

Here are four of the potential advantages:

  • Enhancing agricultural productivity and output with less labour, which could bolster food security and stabilize prices by improving forecasts of supply and demand for agrifood.
  • Effectively coping with global warming by achieving sustainable agriculture through optimal resource use, which can help prevent disasters and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Developing new distribution platforms that combine online and offline distribution, thereby promoting the growth of agri-food businesses while ensuring food safety through standardization.
  • Broadening the scope of agriculture to include biotechnology and microbial treatment technology in order to produce new drugs and energy sources.

Overall, if innovations are supported by the entire global community, there is a significant chance for growth. Current problems like the pandemic, climate change, and issues with food security have taught us important lessons that we must process and put into practice. In other words, we may work to create a supportive environment for the entire food system that is in line with resource constraints, climate change, market demand, technology advancements, and catastrophic hazards with "low probability and high impact."

Unquestionably, we can create a more productive, sustainable, and resilient food supply chain by connecting the dots and integrating the fragmented services that are now being developed inside the value chain.

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