Food is a basic human need essential for our survival; and so, the topic of food security is not one that anybody can shy away from considering the risks that would be involved should the world lack access to enough food. Already, there are many global areas facing challenges of food shortage due to economic, environmental, and socio-political factors. With the effects of climate change and even the impact of the COVID-19 global pandemic, there is a need to have conversations about food security to ensure our own survival now and in the future.
The gains of technology can be harnessed in all sectors including food and agriculture to bring about innovative solutions that will be beneficial to consumers, entrepreneurs, businesses, governments and the climate as a whole. Considering the natural environmental factors in the GCC and UAE alone, it is useful to know that the region is leading the way in fostering an ecosystem for food technology (FoodTech), agricultural technology (Agritech), and smart farming. All these are efforts being made by key stakeholders to create self-sufficiency in local food production.
In an exclusive edition of the Business Transformation Explained series CEO of EROE, Daniel Solomon hosts a stellar panel of key stakeholders to talk about the use of technology when it comes to FoodTech and Agritech in a webinar Moderated by George Stoyanov, Partner at Grant Thornton UAE. Youssouf Kamal – Innovation and Partnership Manager at Plug ‘n’ Play UAE, Robert Kupstas – Co Founder of Pure Harvest, and Jacek Plewa – CEO of Healthy Farm Food Innovation are the Speakers who lead the discussion on the use of technology in increase food production, smart farming, food waste management and the ethical challenges we all face in respect to these.
FoodTech vs Agritech
FoodTech refers to how the whole value chain of food supply, from production to distribution, uses innovative processes in their business models to improve output. Key stakeholders here include startups, entrepreneurs and government interventions.
Agritech on the other hand mainly looks directly at the use of sustainable technology to increase and improve yield. Youssouf believes the two are similar with the key difference being that Agritech is at the beginning of the value chain with FoodTech coming after the industrial level. Speaking at the panel discussion he made the point that; “FoodTech is a branch of food science with the production process from food preservation, packaging, sustainability to the use of data.” As of 2018, an Arabnet report gave 459 million dollars as the total value of digital investments in the UAE alone. From this figure, technology is critical in how economies are going to thrive in the coming decades. The use of technology in the food and agriculture sector includes urban farming, thinking Artificial Intelligence (AI) as well as modern sustainability practices.
Using Technology to solve issues of Climate Change
In Daniel’s opinion, Food technology is a micro economic challenge ultimately driven by geography. This is true considering the kind of terrain that exists in the UAE for example, very few areas can be considered as arable land for farming purposes. For Jacek, the COVID-19 crisis has been a great revealer and has offered us a great opportunity to rethink food processing and how we treat food as these have a direct bearing on the environment. Studies have shown that the food industry is responsible for 26 percent of global GHG emissions. This can rise to 40 to 50 percent by 2030 if not properly handled. On the other hand, he says that “With this set up I think we are getting ready for a 5th industrial revolution driven by the challenges of the environment and this is related to technology, so it is a time to think. It is a great scope of work for leaders and businesses to rethink technology. Technology is available, it is more on the government and regulatory side to create an environment that addresses these challenges.” A UN study suggests that the world population is expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, and this also means that this number will have to rely on food so we have to start creating sustainable systems. For example, Healthy Farm Food Innovation has for the past five years been working on alternative meat with a technology that has been available and developed for ten years, and accelerated more with investments. Jacek goes on to add that clean food is also important and defines it as saying no to chemicals, refined sugars or flours, artificial additives, and pesticides. In summary the less processed food is, the better.
Quality control needs to be improved with focus on sustainable packaging as well. Pure Harvest for instance is planning to build 70 hectares of green house to provide healthier and more affordable local food.
How do we advance the Food and Agriculture capabilities we have?
The UAE being ranked 21st on the Global Food Security Index reflects the country’s role in advancing food sustainability. In Youssouf’s view, the UAE is very reliant on international supply chains and that puts the country at risk. We therefore need to create win-win configurations for all stakeholders to leverage technology for example, with startups and collaborations to improve the ecosystem. We also need to leverage private sector involvement. They may not be too open at the beginning but we need to educate, incentivize and prove to them by showing them the KPI’s and profitability proof that it is a business model that works.
Rethinking Supply Chain and Distribution to decrease food loss/waste
The panelists debated on the role of supply chain and distribution in curbing food waste. They however agree that the GCC has a high per capita food waste which not only contributes to losses but greenhouse emissions, and so the key here is making efforts to shorten the supply chain by exploring local opportunities. For example, the time frame from harvesting to distribution should be less. Handling of perishables through cold chain practices should also have fewer people in the supply chain. These topics should be added to school curriculums for the mindset of change to begin at a very early stage. Consumers should also be sensitized; schools and communities need to be involved in elevating values we represent as a society in terms of ethics. From an industrial point of view the use of software, biotech and AI to provide data on food storage will prove useful.
In tackling food waste in the next two years for instance, solutions provided by the panelists include relooking at government regulations and investment into technology, as well as the value chain. In addition, we need to focus more on educating the UAE youth population so that they can bring these standards to the schools and households.
Online grocery shopping can be effective in reducing food waste as they shorten the supply chain, and also a healthy option for consumers who can get fresh produce coming directly from the farms.
People argue that farmworkers who depend on their labour to put food on the table of their families may feel under threat from ‘agri bots’ with all this talk of technology. However, new technology can be managed in a way that is beneficial to all stakeholders. Though the UAE government shows a lot of leadership in terms of regulation, ethical elements must be shouldered by both the government and the populace to support the creation of a viable ecosystem. Whilst government support is needed through initiatives, entrepreneurs who believe in the availability of clear opportunities in FoodTech and Agritech are needed in the space. Organizations now have CSR in their DNA instead of being a ‘once in a year’ occurrence and so this can also help in making an impact. There are a lot of opportunities in Aquaculture farming as well, even though it is capital intensive and requires a lot of technology maturation.
Should we really trust machines and robots to produce our food?
In Robert’s view, it is possible if they are bringing us closer to nature. In the first place, he says that “My company uses hydroponics technology and so our produce does not grow in the soil but is still natural. Open field farming may not be possible on a large scale in UAE due to
environmental factors so in this case, we need to talk about hydroponics and other irrigation methods. Also, processes have to be automated, for instance robots harvesting yield in order to achieve the UN’s projection on feeding 9.7 billion people by 2050.
Future technologies to look out for
In terms of technology, Aeroponics farming is promising because it is less capital intensive, very environmentally friendly and sustainable as it uses less water. Also, technologies that discourage the use of pesticides to grow any type of crop should be looked into in a bid to improve consumer health and boost their immune systems.
How do we link all these with pricing?
Speaking on pricing, Jacek believes that we have more vulnerable and price sensitive consumers now and so companies must optimize costs in production to decrease these costs. Youssouf on the other hand thinks that it will be hard to be competitive with traditionally established farmers, but sufficient technology and skills will need to be implemented in large farms to gain economies of scale. For example, robotics is expensive but cheaper if the farm size is large. Farm to table concepts also need to be looked at and ecommerce is key here. In Robert’s view, he uses his Company Pure Harvest as an example where they offer more value in terms of quality compared to the competitors who import from Europe. Since they produce locally, their produce has more sunlight which also accounts for longer shelf life as they do not use artificial lighting compared to what their competitors do in winter. Also, they cut on freight costs as they transport locally and so they mostly have to deal with cooling and capital costs mainly. In summary, the value proposition is great quality at an amazing price.
From the contributions of the Panelists, Host and Moderator, it is clear that we need to have more of these conversations as a people to come up with practical and innovative ways of curbing the likelihood of food security risks now and in the future. Technologies are available, and continue to be developed and so all stakeholders have to keep the conversation going in addition to putting in practical techniques needed to achieve global food security goals.