COVID Has Triggered Changes in the Food Industry

by Contributor, Dasha Shvaikovsky.

The global food supply chain is rerouting during the pandemic as consumers shift to plantbased products, companies tackle food waste & the food industry embraces new sustainable solutions.

There is an ongoing debate concerning whether or not climate change will be placed lower on the global political agenda now that the countries are starting to slowly, but steadily exit the lockdowns caused by the COVID-10 pandemic. The future trajectory of emissions, this year and beyond, remains highly unpredictable and depends on the way that governments, industry and society as a whole react to the crisis. 

For the food industry, massive reconstructions are already happening full-speed. Swift adaptations are taking place along the whole food supply chain: on the farms, at food processing plants and food retail companies, manufacturing facilities, grocery stores and restaurants. 

Animal agriculture – the evident and hidden threads

Currently, when the world is facing a crisis that is disrupting food supply chains and increasing the risk of hunger, many people are becoming more aware of the importance of a healthy and sustainable food systemThe devastating effect of the animal agriculture industry on the climate is striking; some of the world’s leading scientists state that “If cattle and dairy cows were a country, they would have more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire EU 28”. 

The animal, and even human, welfare problems of the meat industry are also becoming even more evident. In the USA, where the increasingly large number of workers at the meat-processing plants are falling sick, the number of cattle slaughtered fell below 500,000, down more than 35 percent from average beef production, as suggested by meat industry analysts. Is there a possible answer to all these pressing issues? Biotechnology and foodtech certainly have some of them.

Plant-based meats on the rise

A recent cascade of news about the boost in meat alternatives sales need to be noted: the grocery store sales of products like Beyond Meat and Tofurky were up 264 percent during a nine-week period ending on May 2nd. The popularity of faux meat exploded starting in March, with sales of fresh meat alternatives surging 206 percent the first week of March and rising 279 percent the week ending on March 14th, according to Nielsen.

Other positive examples of such transition include agrifood giants like Cargill starting to expand their plant-based product lines in countries like China after seeing high interest in vegan chicken nuggets after trails in Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou. London-based THIS, a vegan food company producing extremely realistic plant-based meat–alternatives also raised €5.5M in January 2020. 

Smaller alternative protein companies, such as fungi-based protein foodtech startup, Mycorena, are presenting similar trends. Even amidst the recession, the Swedish company has recently raised €1.2 million to expand its industrial production plants. The dairy alternative company Oatly, has also seen an increase in demand in the early days of the pandemic.

Food waste amidst the pandemic and creative solutions to tackle the issue

Despite the change in consumer behaviour, such as panic buying and increase in grocery demand, the closure of restaurants, colleges and schools – the main “bulk buyers” – resulted in millions of tons food products going to waste. From gallons of wasted milk to rotting vegetables, the world needed powerful tech solutions to rescue and redistribute the fresh foods, and help them to stay on the shelves for longer.

In the startup world, such solutions have gained momentum: a company called Apeel Sciences from California announced $250 million funding in May, adding to the previous investments from the Gates Foundation, Oprah Winfrey and Katy Perry. Apeel’s preservative technology adds a layer of plant-derived protection to the surface of fresh produce to slow water loss and oxidation — the factors that cause spoilage.

According to TechCrunch, a single run of Apeel’s system can treat 10,000 kilograms of food in an hour. “Eliminating global food waste can free up $2.6 trillion annually,” says the CEO of the company James Rogers. As for the planet “price”, eliminating food waste would also mean saving about 8% of the global greenhouse emissions, which is a big number to fight for. 

Although preventing food waste generation is a No1 priority in the “Food Recovery Hierarchy”, redistribution of the surplus food is the next step needs to be taken. In the UK, a retail company Iceland has cut its food waste by nearly a quarter, or 23%, in two years by donating food to local communities, converting it into animal feed and processing it into biofuel. Such examples clearly show that initiatives like these can make a big difference in reducing the huge volumes of edible food that go to waste.

Source: EPA
The way forward

The concentrations of atmospheric CO2 that are warming our planet will not stabilise until the world reaches net-zero. The previous financial crisis of 2008-2009 showed that even though the carbon emissions decreased due to the lowered demand for power, it was followed by a sharp rise of almost 6% in 2010. 

However, in order to reach the Paris Agreement target of limiting global warming to 1.5℃, we need to reduce global CO2 emissions by 7.6% per year between 2020 and 2030. The World Economic Forum also urges that even the recent report of the decreasing emissions does not mean we are addressing climate change.

Thus, it is now more important than ever to continue working towards cleaner and greener economies, and one powerful way to do it is to change the way we produce and consume food, one meal at a time. 

For more information on CleanTech in the food industry, please see here.