Global Food Security at Risk
Updated: Jul 26
There is currently a global food security crisis looming.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food insecurity as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active healthy life (left). COVID-19 has clearly exposed the deficiencies of our agriculture and food ecosystem – rigid supply chains, labor scarcity, unsafe work conditions. Unless comprehensive, swift action is taken, the world is looking at an imminent collapse of the agricultural supply chains.
This current crisis is projected to double the number of people experiencing food insecurity worldwide to 265 million – and the real number could be much higher due to coupled risks such as migrant labor disruptions, aborted harvests, processing stoppages, storage and delivery breakdowns. Hunger, not COVID-19, will kill tens of millions of people.
It’s a Resiliency Problem
Potatoes buried, zucchini rots, milk dumped down the drain, while millions are going hungry. This isn’t a supply problem, it’s not a demand problem – it’s a resiliency problem, and it’s only getting worse.
To comprehend the scale of the challenge we are facing, it’s important to recognize the food ecosystem has been distributed and scaled for efficiency. Currently, countries and regions only produce food that is globally cost competitive, and much like critical medical supplies, as food becomes scarce, we can expect countries to limit exports.
Food planting and harvesting around the world are traditionally labor intensive (and often migrant) and take place in close quarters. In developed nations, the labor is often immigrant and seasonal. COVID-19 has hampered migrant labor from travelling to harvest regions and increased the risk to this essential and largely impoverished population. The challenges at meat packing factories in the U.S and Canada are merely the most recent manifestation of this.
The domino effect on the harvest and follow-on planting seasons will set into action a chain reaction with potentially disastrous consequences for food security. Agriculture is not a high margin business; a single bad harvest can drive a farmer out of business, while the reduced supply of a single missed planting season can cause the see-sawing of prices.
Coupled with the lingering aspects of COVID-19 and its impact on labor availability it’s not difficult to see how this hunger crisis could expand on a global scale we haven’t seen since World War II. We might be looking at food scarcity for a few years. This is not a risk we should be willing to accept.
An Opportunity – If We Seize It
This crisis is a wake-up call to prioritize and fix our food ecosystem. Efforts are currently underway on the supply chain and distribution side to reroute supplies from restaurants to grocery stores, but this appears on the surface to be insufficient.
Local and federal governments need to provide support to our farmers during harvesting and planting seasons, in the form of ensured labor availability, safety equipment, crop and healthcare subsidies, and securing access to critical infrastructure such as energy and water. Fertilizer and seed stockpiles should also be considered. This will provide tactical relief and buy us time.
In the long term, we need to prioritize food security. Global communities and nations need to start treating our food and agriculture ecosystems as strategic national resources. Automation needs to be fast-tracked into testing and deployment. Agricultural and food research needs to be prioritized at both public and private levels. Our research institutions and industry need to adopt new technologies developed by a growing number of revolutionized AgTech startups and deploy long-term sustainable solutions where soil health, water resources and farmer/community health are protected. When Big Ag and government are not capable of agility on the scale necessary to solve these challenges, more innovative, lean startups and intrapraneurs will have the opportunity to fill those technology gaps. Collaboration within these three groups is critical.
Fortunately, much of this groundwork has already been started, providing us with glimpses of the future. Automation technologies, including a new generation of Artificial Intelligence (AI) powered robotics, are emerging on food production, processing and deployment lines. New digital supply chains are proving effective in quickly rerouting food to new demand centers. Next generation food production systems that rely heavily on automation have proven to be more resilient than their traditional meat packaging plant counterparts.
We need to build and accelerate these trends. Much of the technology to accomplish these goals already exists. What is lacking is the vision and investment necessary to make this future our reality soon. The real question now is – will we wait for the next crisis before we choose to do something about it?
Motivo Engineering is an innovation engineering firm headquartered in California, USA. Motivo has helped clients develop and globally deploy technologies ranging from driverless cars to automated planting robots. Motivo’s unique innovation framework has reduced the risks in transformative product development for clients ranging from early stage start-ups to global conglomerates in the mobility, ag-tech and aerospace market segments.