Building a safer and sustainable food system to prepare for a post-pandemic world

Vertical farming has gained more acceptance as a sustainable alternative to traditional farming methods, particularly in countries like Singapore with limited land space

The food and beverage industry has made significant headway on several of its longstanding challenges over the years. Working alongside the public sector, the industry has improved food security in several nations, and is also making good progress in reducing the environmental footprint of key production methods. However, the sudden and rapid onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the industry to reconsider its approaches as the pandemic surfaced new challenges and amplified imbalances the food system, as Matt Kovac, executive director at Food Industry Asia, writes more.

Over the past months, national governments have implemented a range of precautionary measures to curb the spread of COVID-19. While the measures had been necessary to mitigate the consequences of the pandemic, they have also led to disruptions across the entire food supply chain.

Nationwide lockdowns and intensified border restrictions, for instance, have hindered food production due to limitations placed on the movement of raw materials and labour. With workers staying home and demand for fresh produce dropping dramatically due to the closure of food and beverage establishments, farmers had been left with no choice but to dispose perishable supplies. This has also left millions of seasonal workers without their livelihoods, further aggravating food insecurity among the most vulnerable.

Notably, food companies in Southeast Asia had identified labour shortages and border restrictions as some of the key challenges they have faced since the implementation of precautionary measures, according to a joint report the Food Industry Asia (FIA) had developed with PwC.

The situation today had been exacerbated by an increasing demand for food as consumers rushed to stock up on staples in the initial stages of the outbreak. While it has improved in recent weeks, countries are preparing for another round of panic buying in the event of subsequent waves of infections as we are already observing in countries like Australia.

Furthermore, the United Nations projected that the world population will reach 9.7 billion in 2050, requiring a significant increase in the production of affordable, healthy, and nutritious food. With over 820 million people already experiencing food insecurity, the adequate handling of supply chains in the face of COVID-19 may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, particularly as food prices are projected to rise.

That said, the pandemic has presented a good opportunity for the food and beverage industry to address the challenges we currently face and reinvent systems to build a safer and more sustainable food ecosystem.

Leveraging new food innovations

As consumers adapt to a new normal, innovation will play an integral role in helping to build a safer and more sustainable food system, which the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) defines as one that “delivers food security and nutrition for all in such a way that the economic, social and environmental bases generate food security and nutrition for future generations are not compromised”.

Prior to the pandemic, interest and investments in urban agriculture and vertical farming have already been gradually rising and gaining mainstream acceptance as a sustainable alternative to traditional methods. With COVID-19 further reinforcing the vulnerabilities of global supply chains, countries are looking to increase their reliance on local food systems, and one way to do so is through the adoption of vertical farming technology. This is particularly the case in countries that are highly dependent on food imports, and have limited land supply such as Singapore.

Moving forward, urban agriculture will be key to helping countries achieve sustainable self-sufficiency and at the same time, improve the variety and nutritional value of foods in a post-pandemic world.

Riding on the popularity of plant-based alternatives

In addition to urban farming, alternative proteins are also emerging to meet the world’s growing demands for food. Even before the pandemic, a study by Barclays found that the market for alternative meat could reach US$140 billion over the next decade, capturing approximately 10% of the trillion-dollar global meat industry.

This serves as a timely reminder to countries on the importance of source diversification to protect against unexpected disruptions. However, rather than eliminating traditional sources completely, we view the pandemic as an opportunity to improve governments and consumers’ receptiveness to novel foods.

We are already seeing changes in consumer behaviour across the globe, with the sales of vegan meat increasing by 264% in the US within months of the outbreak. Similarly, in China, more consumers are shifting towards plant-based diets, keeping in line with the government’s goal to halve the country’s meat consumption by 2030.

Using science to deliver healthy food choices

The spotlight on health from COVID-19 has driven consumers to change their eating habits to better protect themselves from the virus. A study FIA conducted with Ai Palette revealed that health is among the top considerations for consumers across Indonesia, Philippines, and Thailand, as they look towards nutritious foods to enhance their immunity.

As an industry, FIA’s responsibility lies in ensuring that consumers have access to healthier food options, and we have made significant progress over the years as brands continue to introduce reformulated products. In doing so, manufacturers also make a conscious effort to ensure that taste is not compromised, which was similarly brought up as a key priority by industry experts speaking on the panel “Reformulation: Healthier Food for Asia Post-Pandemic” at the recent FIA Dialogues.

In addition, a technique that has been gaining a lot of traction due to its vast potential in transforming the food system is gene editing. While gene-editing food items are few and fat between, this technological breakthrough has the ability to upgrade current production methods and allow industry players to modify the DNA sequence of foods to enhance nutritional value.

Gene editing, with CRISPR being one of the technologies, can also bring about benefits to the agriculture industry and improve the world’s food security – a sentiment echoed by speakers who came together to discuss the role of CRISPR in building global food security at the FIA Dialogues – as it facilitates crop breeding by mitigating the impact of diseases, among other benefits.

In redesigning supply chains, we must do so with nutrition and human health in mind to better safeguard populations during times of crisis. Tapping on scientific advancements has the potential to change the food consumers eat everyday by enhancing nutritional value while bringing opportunities for improved yields in the long run.

Embracing digital solutions

New technology is revolutionising our understanding of modern farming, and this is not only limited to production methods. Digitalisation can also improve the ways of working within the supply chain.

COVID-19 has unveiled the risks associated with the world’s dependence on complex value chain that are close to impossible to track. Furthermore, as consumers and governments become increasingly conscious of the origin of foods, blockchain technology has once again become top-of-mind.

The adoption of blockchain technologies can provide stakeholders along the supply chain with greater transparency and knowledge on the product from start to finish. As traceability is enhanced, it also places businesses in a better position to identify critical processes or components that might be prone to failure, allowing them to quickly adapt to disruption even before it takes place.

Now, more than ever, is the time to focus on strengthen the food system to be one that is optimised for human health and the environment. This cannot be done without the close collaboration of all stakeholders, from leading food experts to global companies and government bodies. Together, we need to make the best of what the crisis has given us, and use the pandemic as an opportunity to create a new and improved food system.  

This article was published in the October/November 2020 issue of Food & Beverage Asia.