COVID-19 And The Future Food System
The global COVID-19 pandemic impacted the world in numerous ways. This “black swan” event affected societal norms, health systems, government policies, and businesses. How and what we eat also changed. The crisis exposed fault lines in food production systems and supply chains. What a new normal will look like is still uncertain, but some trends are emerging. This review frames potential innovations in the food sector in four ways, examining them through the lenses of food safety, bioactive food compounds, sustainability, and food security.
Food safety is a critical issue for the public. During the crisis, some of us sprayed our groceries with disinfectant to ensure we didn’t carry pathogens into our homes. But what’s inside the packages has been a longstanding worry. New systems will use novel technologies to enable the traceability of food from farm to fork. Smart packaging will inform shoppers about food safety and better preserve what’s inside. Virtual inspection systems combined with smart tags will allow the tracking of foods and improve the process of identifying food-borne illnesses. And food businesses are now clear on the need to create a safety culture to protect both their customers and their employees.
During the pandemic, consumers sought ways to strengthen their immune systems and improve their overall health. Businesses found opportunities in personalized nutrition, functional foods, and nutraceuticals. New bioactive compounds, possibly derived from previously untapped bioresources such as food waste, microalgae, and other plant-based foods are being explored.
The shocks to the food system from the COVID pandemic created significant food waste. In the U.S., closed packing plants led to the mass killing of animals used for food when they could not be taken to slaughterhouses. Wholesalers accustomed to serving institutions had too much food and no outlets for it. Meanwhile, shelves and meat cases in retail markets sat empty. Consumers panicked and overbought or purchased foods they didn’t know how to use. These outcomes highlight the need to improve our food system’s sustainability. Supply lines and food production systems must be able to weather crises. A more circular bioeconomy will minimize waste and the environmental impact of food production. For example, food waste could be converted to fuel, soaps, and fertilizers. Bioplastics will also be important for reducing harmful and long-lived plastic pollution on land and in oceans.
Improving food security requires reducing food waste and streamlining supply chains. Modernizing retail food operations is also necessary. Allowing customers to use mobile apps for shopping and connecting retailers to smaller suppliers would improve both supply and demand for food. Electronically tracking operations in fish farms would optimize production and minimize disease. Even bee pollination can be enhanced using digital systems.
In the authors’ view, there are several innovations poised to disrupt the current food system. Lab-grown meat, and plant-based meat alternatives are two such examples. Other disruptive technologies on the horizon include internet communications technologies, blockchain in the food supply chain, food production innovations, and adding value to a range of bioresources. There is also a need to employ social marketing to better understand consumer perceptions and barriers that affect behavior change.
Food technology is evolving, and the pandemic is accelerating some of these trends. As they develop strategies to improve animal welfare, advocates can use this information to peer into the future. While it’s important to address today’s problems, it may be even more critical to look forward. That way, we can step in now to prevent future animal suffering.