3 Industry Leaders on the Tech and Behavior Shaping the Future of Food

The past six months have revealed and exacerbated our food system’s weaknesses and underscored the need to build a more sustainable, flexible model. Our food supply chains are designed to be efficient and not responsive, which means they can’t handle sudden changes to supply or demand. They don’t do well in the event of a crisis or other unforeseen circumstances, and this vulnerability has become all too clear. The pandemic has led to simultaneous food surplus and shortage—millions of gallons of excess milk; eggs and vegetables destroyed before they spoil; not enough meat to stock shelves.

Fortunately, a number of innovative companies are helping to build a new food system, and we have the privilege of learning from and partnering with many of them through Mission North’s Life Sciences practice

We recently spoke with three of these industry leaders—Michael Miille, CEO of Joyn Bio, Carmela Cugini, CRO of Bowery Farming, and Eben Bayer, CEO Ecovative Design and Atlast Food Co.—about the technologies and behavioral shifts that are shaping the future of food. Their responses, which have been edited for length, are below.

What changes have most impacted your business since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis? How have you adapted your strategies to respond? 

Michael Miille: The biggest impact initially was the shock of having to shelter; there was a period of learning, patience and adapting to change. We got people back into labs, greenhouses and fields quickly with a clear focus on ensuring they could get to work and do their job safely. Our previous focus and investments in computational biology and bioinformatics have been beneficial here and will continue to pay off in keeping people safe while making swift progress in our work. The more we can screen and test microbes “in silico” rather than in the lab, the better. 

Carmela Cugini: The first thing we thought about was supply chain. How do we support our local customers as the traditional supply chain of shipping food across the country is looking more fragile? COVID has put a new spotlight on the demand for food safety and transparency; at Bowery, we have “Protected Produce”—there is no need for pesticides and very few people come in physical contact with it. Our customers are close to the point of harvest so retailers and consumers get produce within a few days, and we can serve them 365 days a year without interruption. 

Eben Bayer: As product demand has spiked, we’ve needed to continue expanding our global supply chain. Getting factory space has been a big challenge. That said, we have been able to adapt the way we work. Early on, we got [in-person] head counts as low as possible to protect employees and got to work setting up labs in people’s homes. We actually had one of our food scientists create a food testing lab in his garage. We’ve also started doing Zoom cooking demos for customers. We were reluctant to do that at first, but it has become the default.  

Which trends do you expect will endure after COVID-19? 

EB:  The pandemic has given consumers a renewed perspective on how things are done in the meat industry and space to think about where their food comes from. The shift toward plant-based food is picking up, and things we thought were going to happen in five years are now looking more like two or three. 

CC: People are going to continue to shop for their food online, so grocery stores with a strong omnichannel footprint will do well. The insides of stores will also look different than they did before. Stores will have to rethink the areas where food safety comes into play like sampling and salad bars. Some retailers are saying they are seeing trends of less bulk and more packaged food—but a call for more sustainability will also play a big role.

MM: COVID has been a wake-up call for the agriculture industry. Many of us are asking, “what if the next pandemic impacts crops instead of humans, spreading rapidly across critical food sources? How could we react?” We can’t predict when or what it will be, but it’s clear we have to change our systems and our technology to be faster and more flexible. Speed and diversity of solutions to help farmers is certainly something we’ll be prioritizing for the long run. 

Many of us are asking, “what if the next pandemic impacts crops instead of humans, spreading rapidly across critical food sources? How could we react?”

—Michael Miille, CEO of Joyn Bio
What industry innovations or changes spurred by COVID will last? 

CC: We’ll see new methods of direct-to-consumer food sales, like farmers markets that collaborate with distributors. Additionally, as retailers adopt supply chains that are more locally based, farmers can buy seeds that are optimized for flavor and yield, not travel. 

EB: We are seeing more food and restaurant businesses turn into ecommerce companies out of necessity—this is something we’ll see more of.  For the food industry, now is a time not just of reopening business but also of rethinking entire systems. 

MM: The whole biotech field is moving forward at a faster pace—and will continue to—as the category as a whole gets attention, resources and investments spurred by COVID, even if they are not directly related. We’ll also likely see more regulations move forward more quickly, as people have now seen how fast things can move when we need them to and set new precedents. We’ve learned that when situations are dire, you can come up with fast tracks, and more people and businesses will likely tap into that sentiment to bring their innovations to market faster.