Pandemic prompts rethink of food supply chains

"Investments in vertical farms and high-tech greenhouses are in vogue"

It has been a hectic year for Eleanor Herrin. Since the UK’s first lockdown in March, business has been booming for the chief executive of Farmdrop, an online start-up focused on distributing sustainable, locally produced food.

The success of Farmdrop and other food start-ups suggests that, on the ground level, the food system is already evolving. Technology and shorter local supply chains are key elements in this shift, while food distributors that can respond to the need for convenience as well as the demand for fresh and nutritious food are making headway. “[Because of] the appreciation for higher-quality, higher-welfare food, there are tailwinds — we definitely see organic sales growing,” says Ms. Herrin. “It means money going into a system which is an alternative to big production and factory farming, whether that’s local or not.”

Big food importers are now making food security a central part of their national policy frameworks. China has been urging consumers to waste less, while governments in Singapore and the Gulf have been investing in new technologies to increase local food production. 

Investments in vertical farms and high-tech greenhouses in order to ensure stable supplies of fruit and vegetables even if trade flows falter are in vogue. Wayne Gordon, an analyst at Swiss bank UBS in Singapore also notes that while many countries are building new storage facilities, including for chilled and frozen food. “They want to be prepared for supply disruptions,” he adds.

Countries that produce their own food as well as importing from others may be less vulnerable to supply-chain crises but they are not immune. Tim Benton, research director at the UK Chatham House, the international affairs think-tank, says it would be sensible for policymakers to weigh the costs and benefits of incentivising more diverse production — “especially given [that] the world’s stability cannot be relied on.”

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