The technologies - and thoughtful collaborations - that can build resilience in the food system after COVID-19

A farm worker manually irrigates a salad field, amid the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), In Thies, Senegal June 3, 2020. Picture taken June 3, 2020. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra - RC2H2H9EP4AI
A farm worker manually irrigates a salad field, amid the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), In Thies, Senegal June 3, 2020. Picture taken June 3, 2020
Image: REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
  • COVID-19 has highlighted a number of global vulnerabilities, including those connected to food supplies.
  • New mindsets, collaborations and technological applications will be needed to ensure a just, sustainable and resilient food system in the long term.

COVID-19 didn't just empty grocery shelves across much of the so-called “developed world.” It weakened already precarious systems in some regions leading to what the UN has called "historic" setbacks in the fight against hunger.

The crisis reveals a number of key areas where our food system is vulnerable, from supply chains to food production. With predictions that future pandemics could bring even starker consequences, strengthening the food system will be critical for the long term. Novel technologies, if thoughtfully deployed, could help ensure a more just, resilient system moving forward.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.

Since its launch on 11 March, the Forum’s COVID Action Platform has brought together 1,667 stakeholders from 1,106 businesses and organizations to mitigate the risk and impact of the unprecedented global health emergency that is COVID-19.

The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.

As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.

Leveraging technologies for resilience

Coronavirus shows the opportunity available to modernize a range of systems with emerging technologies. While the food industry was already investing in these solutions before the pandemic, COVID-19 is likely to accelerate these processes and help reduce vulnerabilities over the longer-term.

  • Blockchain
    The broad field of computer-based accounting systems, enabled by technologies like blockchain, or other “decentralized ledgers,” can create more transparency in our food systems. The value of such tools has become apparent as COVID-19 reveals the risks associated with our dependence on long, complicated, and often opaque value chains. For instance, not only do we all depend on the seamless trade of agricultural commodities for basic food security, but farmers everywhere depend on international supply chains for everything from sanitizers that keep dairy operations clean to the parts that fix tractors and combines. But tracking these value chains is almost impossible and, mostly, participants in these systems are only aware of the people they buy from and sell to (so-called “one-up/one-down” systems). We are, in essence, travellers without a map when it comes to supply chains and computerized transparency tools can give us a much better ability to identify critical nodes that might be prone to failure, thus enabling the industry to adapt more easily if supply chains become disrupted.
  • Automation
    Automation, the Internet of Things, and robotics were already poised to reduce the labour required by farmers to plant and harvest crops. This is important as COVID-19 has revealed how dependent the food system is on the free movement of agricultural labour. Every year, farmers around the world – but especially in richer countries like Canada and the US – import a huge number of workers to run their food systems. Last year, in Canada alone, 50-60,000 people immigrated on temporary visas from Latin America and the Caribbean to harvest crops and tend farms. COVID-19 requires us to ask, can we be resilient and still be dependent on such a system for national food security?

    Complicating matters is the fact that many of our food processing plants - and in particular meat packing - are physically configured to optimize efficiency. This makes it very difficult to allow for physical distancing in facilities and the proximity of workers on the lines means that social distancing has translated into much slower productivity, backlogs for farmers and likely higher protein prices for months to come. Technologies to reduce labour and automated operations would reduce these kinds of vulnerabilities and are already deployed at scale in the greenhouse industry. Post-COVID, these tools are likely to spread quickly to other sectors.
  • Novel food “frontiers”
    Interest is growing in emerging technologies such as cellular agriculture (which involves growing animal-protein in cell cultures) and controlled environment agriculture (aka vertical farms). These tools allow “agri-peneurs” to produce food much more locally and in highly controlled environments. This may help create more regional food economies and reduce a third vulnerability revealed by COVID-19, which is how vulnerable we are because aspects of our food system have become extremely centralized. Food processing, for instance, is increasingly done in a small number of extremely large plants that service huge - continental sized - geographic areas. While this centralization allows for economies of scale, it is also a vulnerability and the closing of meat packing plants have caused stores to limit meat sales to customers, hurt farmers, and could even push some countries to the edge of their meat supply. Controlled Environment and Cellular Agriculture can be designed to be much more modular, thus allowing different sized operations to flourish. These systems can also be designed to use waste heat from manufacturing plants and be built in urban areas thus shrinking supply chains and boosting regional resilience.

Hard questions, new collaborations

To be sure, technology alone will not be enough to strengthen the world's food systems. Most of the world’s 570 million farms are both small scale and family-run and won't have access to such innovations. It is possible that certain innovations could even drive the decline of small- and mid-size producers, leading to upticks in unemployment or poverty.

Therefore, COVID-19 reveals a strong and urgent need for representatives of all sectors of the economy to come together and engage in a dialogue to plan what a post-pandemic food system will look like. This must include industry buy-in, but also regulatory reforms, and a keen awareness of the needs of the most vulnerable - including the lowest-paid workers with the most precarious immigration statuses who have traditionally kept us all fed.

If we allow ourselves to dream big about novel collaborations, and use the current crisis to catalyze new conversations, then we may hope to see new and creative solutions to age-old problems.

—Evan Fraser, Lenore Newman

Equally, the world needs never-before seen collaborations between unlikely bedfellows such as tech companies and food security / poverty organizations who must work together and develop new ways of deploying technology while keeping the needs of the poor firmly at the centre of any programs.

If we allow ourselves to dream big about such novel collaborations, and use the current crisis to catalyze new conversations, then we may hope to see new and creative solutions to age-old problems. The technologies that create transparency and resilience could also reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from farming and help cut down the amount of food we waste.

Additionally, the development and deployment of low-cost sensors measuring everything from soil moisture to temperature will not only help improve food safety but route data to smart phones allowing large and small scale players to work together more easily and maintain supply chains.

With such options in place, wealthy countries and other groups could potentially see the need to invest in the processes to ensure that tools like blockchain can be deployed to promote transparency and help producers from lower-income regions.

Prior to the pandemic, experts were already suggesting that a Digital Agricultural Renaissance was taking shape and, in all likelihood, COVID-19 will fuel that trend. The crisis affords us a moment to take stock on what we’ve learned, and shape the direction of the food system, ensuring that it is technologically sophisticated and profitable, but also sustainable, just and healthy.