Despite the coronavirus pandemic, the production and supply of food throughout the world continues mostly uninhibited. Nevertheless, this virus – and future outbreaks of COVID-19 or other pandemics – could undermine global food security if it infects or forces into quarantine enough of the workforce involved in food supply. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations recently warned that protectionist measures by governments during the crisis could result in food shortages around the world. This threat to food security should prompt farmers and food producers to expedite the adoption of new technology, especially automation solutions. The Israeli AgriFood-tech sector can help.
The pandemic is already creating problems for farmers, food processors, and distributors around the globe. Dr. Michal Levy, senior VP of the innovation arm of Israel’s Ministry of Agriculture, confirms that in Israel the decrease in food retailers’ demand has resulted in a surplus of produce. This surplus has a shelf life, which puts growers and suppliers on the clock for finding new buyers. According to Reuters, China’s deputy agriculture minister Yu Kangzhen recently warned that the pandemic is creating “huge uncertainty on international agriculture trade and markets,” which “might trigger a new round of food crisis.”
AgriFood labor is the most vulnerable aspect of food security
The main threat to food supply and therefore security is the threat to labor. AgriFood still relies heavily on manual labor: whether on the farm, in a processing factory, in a packaging facility, or on a transport vessel, workers must be physically present for many of the industry’s mechanisms to function.
In Israel, farms depend on approximately 4,000 laborers from the West Bank, according to Dr. Levy; similarly, the US relies on Mexican seasonal workers; many Western European countries depend on laborers from their eastern neighbors. But as borders have been sealed to contain the pandemic, migrant workers are in danger of being locked out, which would create a labor shortage for harvests and planting seasons.
Due to restrictions on migration, the UK now needs to make up for 80,000 workers to cover the next two months’ harvests. Meanwhile, agricultural ministries in many countries have managed to influence immigration policy: Germany has devised an emergency program to reach a comparable number of migrant laborers, which will mitigate its 300,000-laborer deficit that has resulted from travel and work restrictions; Israel has automatically extended work visas of foreign workers until the end of June and canceled an age limitation that was previously in place. The US is handling Mexican laborers similarly.
However, even if this labor is available, the close quarters of migrant workers on farms could easily result in outbreaks of COVID-19 and other viruses in the future. If this were to occur in any of the breadbaskets of the world, global food security would be undermined.
A threat to meat supply in the US
So far, outbreak in the industry has occurred mainly in the midstream of the American supply chain among meat companies. Notable among these cases are giants Smithfield Foods, which shut down three processing facilities due to major COVID-19 outbreaks, and Tyson Foods, which has been hit at one of its facilities with the largest outbreak in its state. These cases represent a threat to meat supply in the US. Elsewhere in the world and in other food industries are few yet significant instances of disruption. Malaysia’s Sabah, the second-largest palm-oil producer in the world, closed several plantations in late March after a major outbreak among workers.
These instances will prompt stricter measures throughout the AgriFood industry worldwide to protect employee health and food security. But the coming weeks will tell just how rare these disruptions will be.
Expediting integration of AgriFood-tech is key
This vulnerability in the industry is an emergency on the horizon, whose havoc can be avoided if growers and agricultural companies around the world expedite integration of innovative solutions of AgriFood-tech. Dependence on human labor can be reduced through automation and decision-support platforms. Such solutions comprise over 50% of Israel’s AgriFood-tech sector of 380 companies.
Robotics companies such as Skyx and Tevel send swarms of drones to do the spraying or harvesting that today require many farmhands. Companies like Beewise ensure pollination and bee health with autonomous hive cultivation that would otherwise require human oversight and intervention. Decision-support companies like SeeTree use sensing-based intelligence platforms to give farmers omniscience over their crops, whereas normally they deploy professionals into the field.
Israeli date farmers have already begun resolving labor challenges by turning to tech innovators. Several are turning to Blue White Robotics (BWR), which offers an automated agricultural missions system, to deploy drone pollinators designed by an American partner. By integrating this kind of solution into its operations, the farmers fortify their labor needs against the pandemic.
Technologies that don’t require specialized installation have an advantage
However, while the world adjusts to life under the pandemic, the industry has little capacity for assessing relevant innovation. As Udi Cottan, CEO of 2C Ideas and formerly Israel managing director of BASF, told us, industry leaders are focused on stability in the conventional mechanisms of food production and supply while grappling with the new complications facing retailers. This situation does not easily accommodate innovation, since solutions normally entail long testing cycles, in-person training, and the manufacturing and transport of hardware. Exceptions include systems that do not require specialized installation, can be managed remotely, and already have storehouses of their product.
Israel’s CropX, which offers hydration and crop-condition intelligence based on its turnkey ground sensors, is apparently in this sweet spot. According to business development director Matan Rahav, since farmers can install CropX’s sensors themselves, warehouses are already ready to ship, and the company has already established a distribution network in the US – the pandemic has not disrupted the startup. Another example is Vibe Imaging Analytics, which equips food processing facilities with imagery for evaluating food samples. The company already has a global customer base and its modular food-scanning machines available for order.
Startups in these two companies’ position are fortunate to bypass restrictions on movement of people and materials. The rest need access to and flexibility from growers and AgriFood companies to cope with these challenges.
Even if the industry will refrain from incorporating new labor-saving technologies as long as the need for them is not yet dire, growers and agricultural companies should still prepare for worse scenarios. No one is sure of the pandemic’s trajectory, whether it will begin to cease, whether it will recur, or whether new pandemics could yet again hit the world. If AgriFood labor escapes impact by the virus in the short-term, it could nevertheless fall to a subsequent wave of infection. It is therefore a safer plan for the industry to now start regarding innovation as must-have rather than nice-to-have.