What has COVID-19 shown us?
COVID-19 has exposed the fragility of a global agrifood system that many of us have come to take for granted. Cracks that existed all along have now been revealed at both an industry and consumer level.
Increased food production requirements have placed a significant strain on natural resources1, which have in turn been exacerbated by a decrease in human resources in terms of the available labour required to support food production due to the virus. Meanwhile, the paradoxical pull that both malnutrition and obesity2 have on distribution networks has come into stark relief as “accessibility and affordability of healthy, sustainably produced food becomes even more challenging.”
At the same time, COVID-19 has also encouraged some small-scale resilience innovations. Many farms are now selling direct to consumers3, emphasising the importance of local and seasonal food, but often with less choice about specific ingredients. There are also stories of businesses and collectives turning surplus food into healthy meals4 for vulnerable families.
But the pandemic has also highlighted failures. By the end of this year, more than 265 million people1 around the world are estimated to face a food crisis and acute hunger.
Speaking on our Food Fight podcast on the topic of food system resilience, Professor Chris Elliott OBE from Queens University Belfast and Founder of the Institute for Global Food Security, warns of “famines of biblical proportions”. He says: “The UN is screaming now to say: the world is going to have the biggest crisis in the history of people being malnourished. So, let’s put that onto as many people’s radar screens as possible”.
In anticipation of what is being touted as a potential global catastrophe, what kind of response can we expect from food system innovators throughout Europe?
The fragility of our food supply chains
As the COVID-19 lockdown took effect across Europe, borders surrounding Poland were closed to international visitors, forcing drivers to rethink distribution routes. Queues to cross the German border extended up to 40km, with some food trucks remaining stationary for more than 18 hours6. Estimates suggested that deliveries were delayed by up to four days as a result.
This is just one example that highlights the vital importance of creating an even flow of goods through our food supply chain to prevent empty shelves in supermarkets.
Of course, empty shelves also have their own impact. Panic buying and stockpiling has led to shortages of everything from toilet roll to yeast, and it has brought the issue of morality into shopping as some went without basic necessities due to others buying more of certain products than they would under normal circumstances. As a result, supermarket giants were forced to put limits on the amount of ingredients that each customer could buy. Consumers have had to rethink what “essential items” actually are, and join long queues to get them.
In our Food Fight podcast, Food Unfolded journalist Silvia Lazzaris discusses the flour shortages during the COVID-19 lockdown, and the limitations in packaging that meant customers were unable to buy consumer-friendly 1kg bags, but they could go direct to trade suppliers and buy wholesale 16-25kg bags.
And on a global level, commodity imbalances risk shortages of basic affordable foods such as rice. Speaking on the same podcast, Professor Elliott says: “The most widely consumed food in the world is rice: 2.5 billion people eat rice every day of the week. Now I read stories where big exporters like India, Vietnam, Malaysia have stopped all exports completely because they’re protecting their own populations, which is exactly right… Who’s is going to be the most impacted? It will be the people who can least afford it.”
Technical innovations to build resilience
The FAO defines resilience as “the ability of people, communities or systems that are confronted by disasters or crises to withstand damage and to recover rapidly”. In the long term, digital connectivity might present the most robust solution to the recovery and transformation of the food system.
Industry professionals are looking to integrate innovations that we see increasingly in private sectors such as banking and insurance into other areas of life, with the aim of making a wide variety of food systems more efficient. These innovations include big data, the Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI) and blockchain.
- French retailer Carrefour SA has “seen sales boosted by the use of blockchain ledger technology to track meat, milk and fruit from farms to stores and will extend it to more products to increase shopper trust.” They have worked on the blockchain system in partnership with IBM, who are in turn working with several other retailers as well as logistics firms and growers to track and secure their global supply chains7
- UK company Hummingbird Technologies makes use of IoT by using drones to monitor crops. They “gather imagery of arable fields from satellites, planes and UAVs and then analyse it using sophisticated machine learning techniques”, allowing them to respond to any issues within 24 hours8
- EIT Food RisingFoodStar tech startup Wasteless has developed a solution using AI to optimise food price markdowns based on expiry dates, as well as matching product offerings with real-time demand
- And EIT Food RisingFoodStar startup GrainSense is bringing big data analytics and advanced robotics into the fields, with their handheld device that measures the quality of grain to support farmers.
The global population is growing, but the global resources are decreasing right now. Therefore we need new technology to cope with these challenges… Technology and innovation will improve the transparency, efficiency and profitability through the whole chain, all the way from the field to the fork.
Edvar Krogius, former co-founder and CEO of Grainsense
The challenge then becomes one of ensuring equal access to this technology for all farmers, and ensuring that moving to a more connected future does not unfairly disadvantage those producers who are less digitally savvy (the so-called: ‘digital gap’)9.
The potential of sustainable food
Scientific advancement at a biological level can also impact future food system resilience by significantly reducing the amount of land and water required to produce a viable protein source, as well as reducing the overall carbon footprint of the protein’s lifecycle.
- Personalised nutrition apps such as eNutri have been explored extensively as a means of helping people better manage their food choices, versus the established alternatives such as visiting dieticians and traditional nutritionists
- The development of algorithms to tell consumers how sustainable their food is could lead to more informative food labelling
- Protix has innovated further up the food supply chain, developing insect-based proteins for farmers to feed their fish and livestock. They are working on creating a circular food system, by using food waste from other food companies to feed fly larvae, which are then transformed into high protein feed stocks!
How EIT Food’s innovation community is making the food system more resilient
EIT Food is committed to supporting the agrifood sector as it responds to the COVID-19 crisis. In response to food shortages, delays, and wider logistics issues, EIT Food have launched an initiative in Spain called Los Salvacomidas to deliver more than 60,000 healthy children’s meals and ease the pressure on struggling families.
EIT Food has also worked together with its partners to launch a new soup made from surplus fresh vegetables under the Robin Food brand in Belgium. The soup is distributed through food banks and social grocers to vulnerable families, with a first run of 20,000 litres.
And looking further ahead, EIT Food launched a €10m funding opportunity in May 2020 to support agrifood startups and high impact innovations across Europe as they seek to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The COVID-19 crisis motivates many organisations to step up and lead by example, and the launch of both of these funding opportunities demonstrates our commitment to extending help over and above our ongoing and dedicated support of the European Food System. The investment that we are making available right now will help those high potential startups to adapt and prosper in the post-COVID world and boost the creation and implementation of much-needed innovation to help the agrifood sector respond to the crisis.”
Dr. Andy Zynga (CEO of EIT Food)
These are a just a few of the examples of how crisis can give rise to innovation and help drive greater resilience in the food system. But how do we make sure that these successes are able to scale and do not remain one-off concepts? The consistent thread throughout all of these stories is a greater focus on cross-sector collaboration, where partners from across the food industry are able to work together to deliver value to the whole of society.
How can you help shape the future?
Being able to scale high impact innovations could be key to ensuring healthy, trusted, resilient food chains. We are now presented with an opportunity to bring forward sustainable innovations that invest in people, the environment and the economy – if you would like to know more about how you can make an impact, visit the Get Involved section of our website.
Interested in learning more about how agrifood supply chains are coping during the pandemic, and how innovation can boost food system resilience? Our MOOC, The Impact of Panic-Buying During Crisis, showcases some of the cutting-edge thinking from industry professionals, academic experts, and government and policy workers to strengthen the links throughout the global food chain.
- World Economic Forum: How can we prevent a COVID-19 food crisis?
- Global Nutrition Report: The 2020 Global Nutrition Report in the context of Covid-19
- World Economic Forum: How farms are getting closer to consumers in the pandemic
- EIT Food: Robin Food transforms surplus vegetables into soups for social grocery stores and food aid
- World Food Programme: COVID-19 will double number of people facing food crises
- Financial Times: Covid-19 puts Poland’s logistics and transport groups to the test
- Reuters: Carrefour says blockchain tracking boosting sales of some products
- Hummingbird Technologies: The Process
- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations: Bridging the Rural Digital Divide