COVID-19 has exposed the fragility of many systems including healthcare and transportation, and our food supply chain is no exception. For many in the U.S., a routine task like a trip to the grocery store has become fraught with complexities. The “new normal” forces us to take a closer look at how we get our food. The moment we’re in provides an opportunity to reimagine a more resilient system and how we’ll get there.

Tech and food

Technologies that aid in safe, sustainable growing practices and distribution will be key—both during the crisis and in a post-COVID-19 environment—especially where transparency and traceability are foundational to trust. For example, Newlab member company Bon Harvest offers a real-time inventory management software platform for farmers to easily relay the availability of produce directly to buyers. It leverages advanced data analytics to predict demand, shortages, and other possible supply chain interruptions for farmers and buyers. American Robotics is developing fully-autonomous Robot-as-a-Service (RaaS) solutions to provide insights to growers and researchers at unprecedented resolution, frequency, and speed. 

In a recent Newlab virtual discussion on Innovating the Food System and Supply Chain, Catherine Tubb of RethinkX discussed how innovation underway prior to the pandemic could accelerate, especially if it has the potential to benefit consumers and producers. Increased speed and cost-efficiency of food production enabled by advances in indoor farming, computing and data storage, synthetic biology, and precision fermentation are a few of these promising innovations. However, to ensure that we don’t put further stress on small-to-midsize farms and amplify inequities, it’s crucial that we take a human-centered approach to food production.

Food movements

Consumer demand has long been responsible for local food movements, and in this new mobility- and labor-restricted world, the appeal increases. Beyond local farmers markets and farm-to-table restaurants, the shift has extended all the way to supermarkets. For example, several years ago, 98% of Wegmans’ organic produce was grown on the west coast. Today 30% is grown regionally, a transition that required investment in local agriculture operations and a willingness to experiment. The supermarket chain continues to support advances in the local ecosystem through efforts like Grow NY and partnerships like the one with the renowned farm-to-table chef, Dan Barber’s Row 7 seeds. New Jersey-based chain, ShopRite has also expanded its partnerships with local farms, and, like Wegmans, highlights those relationships and educates customers through in-store displays. 

Moving to a locally sustained food chain is just one way of future-proofing our food systems. Our ability to significantly reduce the carbon footprint of food and agriculture production, distribution, and waste is also part of the picture. It’s estimated that 30-40% of the food supply in the U.S. is wasted. While a 100 percent circular economy where waste is designed out of the ecosystem is still a ways off, several companies have started to prove this model. Rise Products uses spent grain from breweries in Brooklyn and Queens to create a barley flour that has twice as much protein, 12 times as much fiber, and one-third of the carbs of regular flour, and its underlying technology can also be applied to other by-products. Grounded Upcycling uses a similar process of up-cycling coffee grounds into products like mushroom substrate and biochemical extracts.

Systemic support

We all have the opportunity to move towards a food system that brings about positive environmental, economic, and social impact—something that’s necessary to take on the climate crisis. Øisten Thorsen of Newlab member company, FAI Farms, which works with both local farmers and multinational distributors, sees regenerative agriculture as a critical component. It goes beyond natural resource maintenance to the restoration of degraded soils and the development of a self-nourishing ecological system. A return of biodiversity—which offers health benefits for people and the planet—will be one of the many positive outcomes that could come from a systemic shift. 

The role multinational chains play in the future of our food system shouldn’t be overlooked—when they make changes, the impact on the environment is massive. According to Jacquelyn Howard, VP of Global Supply Chain at Starbucks, “food is a people business.” Starbucks’ “open source” C.A.F.E initiative, which was established in 2004, takes into account over 200 indicators to ensure a supply of high-quality coffee that positively impacts coffee farmers and their communities. Maintaining an agile supply chain that incorporates small and midsize producers requires innovation at all levels. Further decentralization and a commitment to resellers and consumers made by policymakers are necessary to ensure players outside of industrial agriculture are economically viable. To get there we will need to help farmers leverage technologies and techniques to improve their efficiency and yield. 

For systemic, sustainable change to take hold, it needs to start at the farm level and progress through the entire food supply chain. Our collective goal should be for safety, efficiency, and accessibility. While technology will help us get there, we need to commit to putting humans at the center—from the livelihood of farmers to the imperative for all people to have access to fresh and nutritious food.