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A Case Study: How AgriFood-Tech Plans To Mitigate Food Shortages

Updated: Jun 4, 2020

As Countries Mull Exit Strategies, COVID-19 Could Still Undermine Global Food Security: Here’s How Israel’s AgriFood-Tech Can Mitigate Future Shortages

Wendy Singer Contributor Start-Up Nation Central Contributor Group

The article below was originally published in Forbes. See it here

1. Read the article below

2. Find some questions for consideration below the article

3. Answer them based on what you know from the article, this Summer Program and elsewhere

4. Propose some new avenues of research starting from the material presented here and your conclusions

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 (FAO) 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 According to Shmuel Rausnitz, Start-Up Nation Central’s AgriFood-tech sector analyst, “the main threat to food supply and therefore food 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.” Dr. Levy notes that in Israel, farms depend on approximately 4,000 laborers from the West Bank. 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. Close quarters of migrant workers on farms could result in outbreaks Today In: Entrepreneurs

Due to restrictions on migration, the UK now needs to make up for 80,000 workers to cover the next two months of 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; and 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, we would be hearing alarm bells around global food security.  

So far, the outbreak in the industry has occurred mainly in the midstream of the American supply chain among meat companies. Notable among these cases are giants like 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, there 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 examples 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, or not, these disruptions will be. Expediting integration of AgriFood-tech is key This vulnerability in the industry is an emergency on the horizon. But its havoc can be avoided if growers and agricultural companies around the world expedite the integration of innovative AgriFood-tech solutions. Israel has a robust AgriFood-tech ecosystem, with some companies offering deep tech and highly innovative solutions, across the value chain. Dependence on human labor, for example, can be reduced through automation and decision-support platforms. Such solutions comprise over 50% of Israel’s AgriFood-tech sector of 380 companies.

In a recent summary of Israel’s AgriFood-tech companies that offer solutions for the coronavirus age, Rausnitz referenced the following examples: 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 wide-ranging knowledge about their crops, whereas normally they need to deploy professionals in 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 system, to deploy drone pollinators designed by an American partner. By integrating this kind of solutions into its operations, 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’s 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.” According to Rausnitz, 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 CropX’s Business Development Director, Matan Rahav, farmers can install CropX’s sensors themselves, so warehouses are already ready to ship. Since CropX already has 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 are available for order. These two startups are fortunate in that they are able 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. Rausnitz emphasizes that if the industry refrains from integrating new labor-saving technologies, owing to a not-yet-dire situation — growers and agricultural companies should still prepare for harsh scenarios. “No one is sure of the pandemic’s trajectory,” Rausnitz claims, “whether it will begin to cease, whether it will recur, or whether new pandemics could yet again hit the world. If AgriFood labor escapes the virus’ impact in the short-term, it could nevertheless fall to a subsequent wave of infection. It is therefore much safer for the industry to start regarding innovation as must-have rather than nice-to-have.” Visit CoronaTech Israel to learn more about COVID-19 solutions, funding opportunities, and more.

Questions for consideration:

Let's look at this article from four perspectives:

1. The Market Perspective (farm labor, investors, producers, consumers, etc.): this is the perspective of this article originally published in FORBES.

2. The Environmental Perspective (mention top soil, biodiversity, ground water, pollinators, pesticides, chemical contamination, climate change, etc.)

3. The Human Perspective (the people who work the fields)

4. Another Human Perspective (the people who need the food, "the consumer", that would be all of us)

Describe the situation and the changes presented in this article from each of the four perspectives.

These are a few guiding questions:

2. Given what you know about the state of our food supply, what are other reasons for food shortage that are not mentioned in this article (soil depletion, ground water depletion, extreme weather events, floods, droughts, the collapse of pollinators, etc.)

3. Let's consider the people mentioned in the story ("the farm labor").

What is the problem with it, as mentioned in the article.

This is how the article describes the living conditions of these people: "Close quarters of migrant workers on farms could result in outbreaks"

What does that mean?

Are there other problems with the people that are not mentioned in the article?

After the technological solutions are implemented, can we foresee some other work-related problems that might befall the same people?

Suppose some of them want to become technicians implementing these technological solutions. What does the article say about the future of those jobs?

4. Let's also consider the other group of people mentioned (indirectly) in the story: those who eat the food ("the consumer"). We all belong to this group.

Make a list of attributes that you would like our food to be: dependable, healthy, etc.

Based on what you know from the article, and elsewhere, how are we doing? Does the food we buy have those attributes?

Using the elements mentioned in the article (people, technology, crops, pollinators, etc.) try to imagine a better arrangement (or maybe you know of one that already exists)

Based on this article and the questions above, what new avenues of research would you like to pursue?


Soil depletion

Groundwater depletion

Pollinator decline

A different way to grow food, for example here