A future we can believe in begins with food we can count on
By Greg Shewmaker, Co-Founder and Chief Commercial Officer, TeakOrigin
This article originally appeared on Greg Shewmaker’s personal medium and was inspired by nearly 100 interviews with food system experts about how current events are impacting their businesses, decision making and planning for the future.
Modern society depends on a highly-interconnected food system that harnesses a vast global network of complex supply chains. We built this system to address two challenges: “How do we make more food?” and “How do we make it cheaper?” This system works as designed, but that’s the problem.
“Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it’s getting” — Upstream by Dan Heath
Optimize costs? Check. “Just in time efficiencies?” Check. But what about reducing vulnerabilities to sudden shock, solving foundational issues that plague human and planetary health, or improving quality of life for hundreds of millions of people that make the system run? The current thinking has been that we’ll get to these things in the next few decades, before things get too out of control.
But, our system had already been under duress with growing demand, malnutrition, dwindling natural resources, and massive waste. What happens to an already-weakened system (below) when it loses an immeasurable number of its critical components abruptly? And all against the backdrop of a climate crisis that will be orders of magnitude worse than anything we are currently dealing with?
With the onset of COVID-19, almost overnight, and without warning, things have gotten out of control. Millions of nodes across this global network have been interrupted or obliterated. First order shockwaves, like the closing of the majority of the world’s restaurants (link) and panicked runs on grocery stores, had an immediate impact.
Second order shocks, like border closures, labor shortages, and overwhelmed food banks took only a few weeks to set in (link). No doubt, the worst impacts are still to come (link). We have no idea how many of these critical nodes might return, or what conditions those that remain will be in.
Over the past few weeks I’ve reached out to 90+ entrepreneurs, farmers, chefs, industry executives, regulators, humanitarians, and others that I’ve met over many years of trying to make sense of our global food system.
Despite their many differences, all seem to have two things in common these days. One, they’re all deeply concerned about the future of food and their food businesses. Two, despite collective and individual vulnerabilities, each remains relentless in their pursuit — against the odds — to seize this opportunity to change our food system for the better.
On their own, they’re chipping away at the problems. The perseverance of farmers. The creativity of chefs. The ingenuity of entrepreneurs. The rigor of scientists. The dedication of people helping to feed others. It’s keeping people fed. It’s inspiring. It gives one hope in times of deep despair. Yet, it’s not enough.
The inherently interconnected threats we face are global in nature and far outpacing our inadequate countermeasures. Our investments, innovations, and interventions — while well-intentioned — remain heavily-siloed, short-sighted, and misaligned with one another. We don’t have incentives or the infrastructure for long-term, globally coordinated actions.
Given the complexity and enormity of the challenges we face today, and how much worse our situation will become, we must have cooperation on a global scale that enables the urgent and coherent synthesis of all the science, technology, accumulated knowledge, and human ingenuity at our disposal.
To do this, we need to develop three new common capabilities that currently don’t exist.
Structured Knowledge Sharing
Two countries in the Middle East, both importing 90%+ of their fresh foods, are investing hundreds of millions of dollars to grow more food locally in extremely harsh conditions. Despite their shared desires, and trialing many of the same solutions, these efforts remain completely disconnected. Across the world in South America, a food company has been successfully growing fruits and vegetables in the Atacama Desert (the driest non-polar desert in the world) for decades in low-tech, sustainable ways. All three parties would benefit from working together. Yet, today, they’ll only cross paths through a random encounter.
There are tens of thousands of examples like this. We need to remove the barriers of our knowledge and share what solutions work, which have failed, and how things might be done differently. Our solutions worldwide will only improve when we have greater contextual appreciation and understanding of what’s already out there.
A Common Language
Malnutrition costs the global economy $3.5 trillion each year and affects almost 3 billion people. It’s a problem that touches all of our lives in one form or another.
But, pick any food and there are hundreds of different — often inaccurate — standards for it. How nutritious is the food moving through the supply chain? The answer depends entirely on where you live, who you ask, and when you ask the question.
Farmers want to grow more nutritious food. Companies want to sell better food. Governments want to prevent food-related health issues. NGOs help feed the hungriest of us. As individuals, we want access to better food. But with such different standards, the false barriers to improvement are nearly insurmountable.
We can’t expect to address serious problems like malnutrition if we can’t even agree on what “nutritious” means or how to measure it. We need a common language that — regardless of our place in the food system — we can use to accurately and clearly communicate with one another.
Framework to Develop System-Level Solutions
Sending humans to the Moon. An unmanned mission to Mars. These are some of the most complex and visionary endeavors ever undertaken by humankind. If we work backwards from these complete system-level solutions, we see that these decades-long efforts required a framework for assessing and advancing new innovations and painstaking coordination and perfectly orchestrated integration of technologies across systems that had to perform flawlessly in extreme conditions.
We need to create such a framework for our food. Feeding billions of people on this planet as temperatures rise and resources dwindle is no less complex, and is certainly more important.
Instead, today we rely on a “Spray and Pray” approach that’s built on a foundation of hope and hype. Hope that we might magically pull together all the right things, at just the right time and in all the right places. Need more hope? Add more hype.
Recovery from COVID-19 must make us more resilient to future pandemics, climate change, and other global threats or they will continue to overwhelm us. Even if we make progress on all other fronts, though, true planet-wide resilience can only be achieved when our ability to feed ourselves is no longer in jeopardy. Put simply, we cannot separate our fate from our food supply.
In the past, conversations about widely sharing knowledge across the food system only led to fears of divulging “secret sauces.” A common language across a multi-trillion dollar industry sounded a lot like a ploy to devalue “proprietary platforms.” Building complex system-level solutions was seen as resource-consuming distractions that would only further divide the pie.
Is it unrealistic to think things might be different now? Perhaps. But we must continue to push.
The solutions and their impassioned creators already exist. But on our own, and disconnected from one another, we are doing nothing more than minor surface repairs to a food system collapsing under its own grave contradictions and the external pressure of multiple crises.
Together, with a crisis-driven sense of urgency, a spirit of solidarity, and access to force-multipliers, we could affect change exponentially. This could save trillions of dollars, years of turmoil, and many human lives.