Will the COVID crisis cause a food revolution?

Innovative technologies are waiting on the shelf, but will they finally be embraced?

Empty grocery store shelves are among the factors that some point to when arguing for a wholesale overhaul of the country’s food production.  |  Reuters/Carlos Osorio photo

There’s been lots of blather about exciting food and agriculture industry technological innovations.

“Smart” everything has been talked about for more than a decade. My newspaper has published dozens of stories about the possibilities of blockchain. The “internet of things” is a term buzzing away at every farm and ag conference out there.

But it’s mostly just talk so far. Could that change because of the COVID-19 crisis? Evolution often occurs in leaps, not gradually, so perhaps this pandemic could trigger changes just waiting to happen.

What could happen to the Canadian food system, about so much mainstream attention has been focused since the beginning of the crisis?

That’s something the University of Manitoba’s Martin Scanlon, Guelph’s Rene van Acker and the University of British Columbia’s Rickey Yada look at in an article they recently authored for website The Conversation.

“This is a critical juncture: we are at a time when we need to examine food processing technology pre-COVID-19 and deploy it to make us more food secure and ready to withstand the next big challenge,” write the three analysts, who are the agriculture and food deans of their respective universities.

“When considering a post-COVID-19 food system we must focus on building resilience using modern innovation. Cutting costs should not be the only factor that informs our supply chain.”

The authors see a battery of innovations that could be used to make the food chain less fragile to breakdowns, more responsive to market needs and able to reduce carbon emissions – all concerns of recent years and during the pandemic so far.

For instance, employing blockchain tracking could supply “incorruptible traceability” to a system already crying out for more farm-to-plate provenance. The technology, mostly just talked about to this point, could allow various parts of a supply chain to be restricted or shut down if a disease broke out,  rather than the present threat today of shutting down the whole thing. Food fraud – the false representation of food products as something they’re not – could also be minimized by blockchain.

Sensors throughout the food processing chain could supply better food safety and quality control than exists presently.

“With COVID-19 affecting skilled and semi-skilled workers on process lines, the impetus for sensor-driven, on-line quality and safety assurances, combined with hygienic robotic automation of production lines, will move food security fears,” the authors write.

“Cheap sensors embedded in packages can provide quantitative assessments of food spoilage.”

That could cut the amount of food waste created by landfilling food from consumers confused by “Best before” dates.

With major beef and pork slaughter plants going down there has been lots of talk about whether smaller, more regional processing plants could play a bigger role in the industry. The authors think so, with the increased flexibility of smaller plants armed with adequate technology to “better serve local food system needs.” Some plants could produce “shelf-stable” products that wouldn’t need to be refrigerated, something that would reduce the enormous costs of refrigeration within the food system.

“This can produce nutritious, high-quality foods that are shelf-stable for up to two years to deliver resilience capacity to our food system.”

The authors note that up to 80 percent of the carbon footprint of a food product can come from the cost of freezing or refrigerating it, so reducing that need could lead to less energy use, longer shelf life and much less food waste.

“Innovative drying practices can replace these cold chains to preserve fruits and vegetables, at the same time maintaining quality and nutrients.”

With the shock of the pandemic fresh in everybody’s minds, perhaps now will be the moment these innovative technologies take root in the real world.

“As we enter the post-COVID-19 world of the 21st century, our call to action is to renovate our food supply chains so that they readily absorb the effects of the next big challenge,” the deans conclude.

Will we see a quick adoption of these technologies now that we’ve seen the weaknesses in the food chain? My guess is that if the COVID crisis begins lessening soon, we’ll see a bit of it, but less than many would hope for, and more haphazardly than would be ideal. So far this crisis has lasted about four months and most of the affected parts of the food chain – the slaughter plants, the consumer-friendly flour packages, the out-of-stock products – have come back on-line and things are getting normalish. That, to me, just doesn’t seem to be enough time to fundamentally change human and industry behaviour beyond certain sensible steps. Just look at how fast people are to return to most of their everyday activities now that the first wave (in Canada) has crested and is waning.

But if the second wave hits hard and we see similar shocks throughout the food system, and consumers once more get scared about being able to feed their families, it’ll be game-on for technology adaptation as the food chain’s members decide to head off severe disruptions while they can.

Much of this new technology is sitting there, ready to be employed. Lots of people are looking at it. What will actually happen? That’s up to COVID.


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