3 Tech Categories That Could Reshape the Food Supply Chain

Image Credit: Joyn Bio

Recently, a friend found a bag on her porch filled with tiny cardboard milk cartons, like the kind you get in elementary school. It turns out those milk cartons were, in fact, from the local elementary school, which was still receiving deliveries despite shutting its doors. My friend’s neighbor had been the recipient of the extra perishables — and unless he shared them, the milk would spoil. 

Meanwhile, milk was spoiling. Lots of it. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed that the efficiency of our food system is a liability in times of crisis. From dairy to onions to pork, it’s become hard to scale production up or down and move products where they are needed rather than where they are destined. This supply chain disruption has wreaked havoc on once stable food companies. It is also opening a window for new providers and options as consumers are forced to change their habits. 

Today’s massive supply chain pressure test comes at a time when new technologies and food options are bubbling to the surface. And, with clients in our Life Sciences practice at the forefront of agtech and food tech, we’re watching these trends closely. Here are the technology categories that we believe will change our food supply chain. 

More automated farming

Social distancing requirements, sick workers, and border control restrictions are bringing a new level of uncertainty to the 2020 planting season. These COVID-induced changes are also drawing more attention to how data and automation can make planting and harvesting faster, more efficient, and less reliant on close human interactions. Ubiquitous berry company Driscoll’s invested in a robotic strawberry harvesting company Agrobot in 2018; robotic hoeing machines, like ones made by Small Robot Company, use artificial intelligence to identify weeds and electric circuits to kill them. 

Automation technologies are getting more sophisticated and less expensive at a time when the need for them is greater than ever. We should expect to see this category spike in the coming year. 

While there may be a shift back to animal-based meat as products become available again, plant-based meat will likely capture more share-of-stomach for the long term.

Flexible agtech 

The CEO of (client) Joyn Bio recently spoke at the World Agriculture Summit about what the agriculture world can learn from COVID-19. He pointed out that the industry’s systems for growing and protecting crops are built for efficiency, not flexibility, much like our manufacturing and medical supply chains. It’s clearer than ever that it’s impossible to predict the future. So, the industry needs to be ready to adapt to plant diseases, pests, and climate-change issues as they arise. 

Growers and suppliers will need more nimble ways to react to disruptions and plan for new scenarios. As a result, technologies that enable flexibility will be critical across the food supply chain. Rather than single-problem solutions, platforms that can apply the latest science, tech and data tools in new ways will fuel farmers’ futures.

Mainstream plant-based meat 

As meat shortages impacted grocery stores across the country in April and May, many shoppers took the opportunity to try plant-based meats. The industry experienced 264% growth during the lockdown period. An already booming category, the industry is ripe for sustained growth as people concern themselves more with their health and the environment and spend free time cooking new things. The coronavirus has so many of us asking “what will become the new normal?” While there may be a shift back to animal-based meat as products become available again, plant-based meat will likely capture more share-of-stomach for the long term.

As this period of acute change subsides and we become accustomed to new-normal routines, I’m not sure that the sourdough obsessions and processed food love affairs will endure. But, it’s clear that this pandemic has accelerated significant diet choices that had already begun making headway before COVID-19.

It’s exciting to see these shifts in consumer demand and the larger changes that are happening at the infrastructure level. Our food system is evolving, quite literally, from farm to table. In the coming months, we’ll be keeping a close eye on these trends and on the companies and technologies that are playing a key role in shaping the future of food.