Covid-19 – Challenges and Opportunities for the AgTech and FoodTech Industries

The lessons learned and conclusions reached as individuals, nations, humanity as result of the Coronavirus outbreak will be long studied and researched. However, it seems there is one apparent immediate lesson – a supreme importance to adopt efficient, smart innovative methods for farming, food production, logistics and retail that could be quickly adjusted to address any changing needs of the world’s population.

In these unsettling times, we have all experienced a challenge in purchasing groceries in same ease we got so used to, whether online or in person.  The fear of insufficient food supplies, whether rational or not, led many across the world to stock on large quantities of food.  Notwithstanding the reassuring messages of world leaders that there is no food shortage, farmers, food manufacturers and retailers are undoubtedly operating under tremendous strain in an effort to meet market demands. At the same time, in alarming quantities, as seen both in Israel and in the U.S., crop and fresh produce have been dumped by farmers who have lost their regular bulk buyers.

In the U.S., farmers have been turning fresh fruit and vegetables into mulch and dumping millions of gallons of milk that would have normally been sold to hotels, restaurants, cruise lines, theme parks, schools, and higher education academic institutions. In response, President Trump announced among others, a $19 billion economic stimulus for farmers and ranchers that will include both cash payments as well as buying farm products and redistributing them to food banks.

Meanwhile however, one of the U.S. farmers’ major challenge is avoiding labor shortages due to delays in work via processing. On average, 250,000 work visas are issued annually, mostly for Mexican agriculture employees. On the logistic front, truck drivers are finding it difficult to perform their job while restaurants and roadside motels are closed. At the grocery stores, employers are dealing with the challenge of quickly filling up positions of employees that are quarantined, and food manufactures finding it challenging to operate while keeping social distance.  To help address the agriculture and food industry challenges, the Trump administration designated agriculture and entire food production and supply chain as an essential       critical industry, allowing businesses to continue operating as usual amid current and potential restrictions created to stem the spread of the Coronavirus.  Other measures include for example the states of Minnesota, Vermont and Michigan who have classified grocery workers as essential workers, making them eligible for childcare and other benefits. And, there is also an attempt to advance the adoption of technological solutions such as for example, autonomous harvesting, self-driving trucks and more.

In Israel as well, farmers experience labor challenges.  And similarly, the Israel Ministry of Agriculture asked that the agriculture industry will be designated as an essential industry.

While the need to address inefficacies in the agriculture and food industries is heightened these days, it is not new.  Worldwide, food waste amounts to $750 billion annually. About a third of all food grown is lost. There is a clear need to accelerate the adoption of readily available solutions that can save valuable resources by extending the shelf-lives of produce and food, solutions for smart logistics,  advanced crop protection technologies, precision agriculture, usage of  drones, machine vision and artificial intelligence, indoor farming and more. Israel is undoubtedly a world leader in agriculture and food technologies with the knowledge and innovation, that today more than ever, could help overcome these global challenges.

The Coronavirus pandemic has disrupted modern society on a scale that most living people have never witnessed. It has crashed economies and devastated healthcare systems. It has isolated people from their workplaces, family and friends.  In the future, we may change the way we commute, travel, work and communicate, however one basic need will never change – the need to eat.  This challenge also presents an opportunity for transformation.  Governments around the globe, including in Israel, should incentivize the adoption of innovative Ag-Tech and Food-Tech solutions that could ensure, no matter what the future holds – the world’s population shall never starve.

About the Author
Meital Stavinsky is a Miami and Washington D.C. attorney, member of Holland & Knight's Public Policy & Regulation Group and Co-Chair of the firm's Israel Practice. Meital focuses her practice on business, public policy and regulation, with a particular emphasis on Israeli emerging and advanced technologies companies in the areas of AgriTech, FoodTech, CleanTech and Advanced Transpiration Technologies. Meital assists Israeli companies seeking to enter the U.S. market and expand their operations in the U.S. She has successfully advocated on behalf of leading innovative Israeli AgriTech companies in raising their profile and advancing their goals before the U.S. Congress and key U.S. federal agencies, most recently in connection with the 2018 Farm Bill.
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