Resilience, diversification, and innovation are needed to safely feed the world
Food security has been brought sharply into focus for consumers and the food industry with empty shelves and panic buying causing gaps in supply at supermarkets across globe. When a crisis hits, we stock up. We know that food and drink are essential to our survival and the provision of safe, high quality and affordable produce throughout our lives directly affects human health, and wellbeing.
At the same time, with population growth exacerbating poverty, inequality, and pressure on infrastructure and resources, questions are being asked about the future for our food. Already it is estimated by the United Nations that some two billion people — over one-quarter of the world’s population — lack regular access to safe, nutritious, and sufficient food.
Vincent Doumeizel leads the Food Safety Challenge at Lloyd’s Register Foundation, our primary founding partner. The Resilience Shift’s Juliet Mian collaborated recently with him on an article for Cereal Foods World looking at how the resilience of global food supply chains could be enhanced through six principles.
Vincent led the research that resulted in the LRF Foresight review of food safety launched in October 2019. Food experts from across the globe, from brands, regulators, NGOs and more, were interviewed and LRF is taking action on three main topics as a result of this analysis: 1) food safety and education, 2) traceability enhanced by new technology, and 3) accelerating the farming of safe food from the ocean as an alternative source of food for a protein-hungry planet.
The Resilience Shift interviewed Vincent on these to understand better the links with our work on critical infrastructure resilience.
“Resilience — is key for global food supply”, he said. “It is the source.”
“The food supply chain is the most critical infrastructure and it must diversify to build resilience”, he added. “There is a very tense situation currently with a huge number of people dying every day from starvation, and 70% of our planet not yet exploited for food. Food safety is all about resilience”.
Better food safety education across the food supply chain is key and LRF aims to increase the level of knowledge and practice for food safety professionals. There are also not enough qualified auditors globally. LRF in partnership with the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) and with academia is proposing to build a curriculum for food safety professionals initially to roll out across East Africa.
Vincent explained, “Half a million people die of food-borne disease currently each year, mostly in Africa, from pathogens such as salmonella, cholera, diarrhoea, listeria, or e-coli.”
“The UN World Health Organization (WHO) reported that the ‘global burden of foodborne disease is comparable to those of three major infectious diseases’ yet over £3bn of international funding goes to those three diseases vs only £50m on food-borne disease”, he added.
New technology innovation is also bringing opportunities to increase food traceability and the level of trust in its safety and source. There is little transparency in the food supply chain. From farm to fork to waste, it is fragmented, complex and multinational.
Innovations such as blockchain, the Internet of Things, big data and satellite monitoring of farming are already being exploited across the food industry. At the same time, developments in the life sciences are bringing us seaweed exploitation, insects as protein, and ‘clean’ lab-produced meat. At the atomic level, stable isotopes, or analysis of microbiomes and their bacteria, can help to identify a product. DNA markers can be added to a product to improve traceability. LRF is working with a number of accelerator companies including Silicon Valley’s Plug and Play to explore the role of innovation in enhanced traceability.
In another development, Google Glass and webcam technology enables remote sight-based remote auditing. Vincent noted that 60% of auditing is generally documentation review so the impact of Covid-19 is opening the door to more remote auditing.
“Although initially reluctant, the accreditation industry is changing and under current social distancing circumstances, around 50% of the audits activity planned have been done remotely. Despite the current crisis, food systems still operate, and global food supply is reliant on accreditation. You must be certified to get product to market and have a licence to operate. So the role of auditors is critical to maintain a reliable and resilient supply”, he said.
The biggest area of LRF’s focus on food safety is research into safe food from the ocean. 70% of the planet is ocean yet only 3% of our food comes from it.
Vincent said, “We have evolved on land from hunter gatherers to farmers. But for the ocean we are still effectively at the hunter gatherer stage with our fishing practices. Aquaculture is not very progressed and we risk making the same mistakes we did in agriculture”.
“Above all”, he said, “We need a new business model for the safe production of proteins. The human race craves animal proteins.”
There is some discussion about how the rise of coronavirus could be linked to this craving for animal protein. When swine fever resulted in 100 million pigs being slaughtered in China, the rise in the use of illegal meats included bats, pangolins and other wild animals linked to the transfer of viruses to humans.
“The lack of traceability combined with the craving for animal protein is lethal”, he added. “And if everyone on the planet wants to eat meat, we’ll need five planets of grazing lands”.
Seaweed is part of the answer. If we restore the growth of seaweed on the planet it could provide an essential source of protein — twice the protein of soy bean, a staple crop for many worldwide — and has many other benefits. It has biodiversity and ecological value. It enables the global ecosystem. It is estimated that if only 2% of the oceans was used for seaweed farming it could feed 12 billion people.
Seaweed farming has great potential according to Vincent. “You can farm it in 3 dimensions — 20–30 metres down and offshore. It grows fast 1m per day for kelp for example. There are 12,000 different types of seaweed — green, brown, red. At some point the green seaweed became all the plants on our planet. Green seaweed is genetically closer to an oak tree or a strawberry than to brown seaweed.”
From a sustainability perspective, seaweed is a carbon sink, absorbing carbon, and also nitrogen so is a good fertiliser for enriching soils. As feed for animals it reduces methane emissions by 99%. Methane emissions are at the same level as global car emissions in terms of their contribution to global warming. It has other less well understood properties — farmed salmon fed on seaweed have fewer sea-lice, for example. But it is used in a number of medicines, as a gelling agent in ice cream, sweets, toothpaste. It can also be used as alternative material for bioplastics and textiles. Lots of questions remain about long-term concerns but seaweed forms a vital part of the global ecosystem. The focus is on developing ways to farm it using balanced systems of IMTA (integrated multi-trophic aquaculture).
In a good example of cross-sector collaboration, LRF is in partnership with Wageningen University supporting the co-location of windfarm energy production and seaweed farming — using cables strung between windvanes. The EU Horizon 2020 programme is providing £20m for five demonstrator sites in north Europe. The US Government is also dedicating 80m euros of funding to a similar project.
Vincent commented, “I’m amazed by the potential of this seaweed. In the last five years the market has grown but the level of fragmentation is very high. There are lots of start-ups.”
“We are therefore launching, this year, a Manifesto for a Safe Seaweed Coalition bringing together a number of interests to accelerate this potential to create a safe source of food for humanity”.
In collaboration with international NGO’s and IGO’s, LRF will release the Seaweed Manifesto during the (now virtual) UN Ocean Conference next June and a physical launch should take place in UN next September. The coalition for Safe Seaweed Coalition will be launched after that release to address some of the calls for action from the Manifesto and related to safety needs. A physical launch of the coalition will take place later this year with all coalition members.
With thanks to Vincent Doumeizel
With more than 20 years’ experience in food testing, inspection and certification for Bureau Veritas, AFD, and others, Vincent Doumeizel joined LRF in June 2019.
Feature images by shane-stagner/unsplash | johnny-chen/unsplash