BLOG / Learnings from Davos: A Living Supply Chain Could Secure the Future of Food. If We Build it Now.

Learnings from Davos: A Living Supply Chain Could Secure the Future of Food. If We Build it Now.

We have all seen the headlines and felt the strain– a global drop in GDP. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Rapidly rising inflation. An inequitable and uneven pandemic response. Sluggish climate action. Disrupted supply chains. 

Post-Davos commentators were nearly uniform in their assessment of key themes from the World Economic Forum annual meeting. They reflected on a prevailing tone of economic despair and gloom.

This might be because another theme found center stage, as an outcome of all the others – the rising threat of global food insecurity. Food provokes something primal. Something at the heart of humanity. Because no matter what happens in the world, the future has to eat. 

In my experience at Davos this year, I felt the gravitas and urgency of this reality in every session and conversation.

Our Fragile Food Supply Chain: The World’s Most Visible Issue

In 2019, I had the opportunity to join the Annual Meeting in Davos as one of the wide-eyed - and admittedly awe-struck - Technology Pioneers. I was there to draw attention to the important role time plays in building a better food system, and to see how this concept would resonate with others. In the pre-pandemic world, the food system had barely registered on the global economic and geopolitical agenda. The cracks in our supply chain were not yet visible. 

This year I was once again fortunate to be invited to the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting. However, this time, I represented a sector that had found itself at the heart of the global geopolitical conversation. Sharing Apeel’s unique experience could help enrich the discussions amongst policymakers, other supply chain innovators, and international leaders looking to turn the need for food system resilience, security, and diversity into reality. 

Amongst these global leaders, a consensus has emerged. Most agree the food system is fragile – because they’ve seen the effects in their home markets. They now share a resolve. They are calling for a public-private partnership. Collaboration must happen across sectors and international institutions. It’s time to act faster on the world’s most visible issue. And time to act differently. 

An Invisible Solution: Right in Front of Us

In the coming years, it will not be enough to repair and rebuild parts of the food supply chain. The conversations at Davos highlight a major shift in how we define a well-functioning food system. We will see a shift from efficiency to security, dependency to diversity, and from globalization to regionalization. We need to creatively rethink how the chains in the system are linked - and what happens as perishable food moves from field to fork. 

When we first started Apeel, we discovered a fundamental constraint of the modern food system that had been unchanged for so long that it had been completely forgotten - time. Produce is a living, breathing thing - that operates on nature’s timeline. Yet, our established transportation and distribution systems treated it like coal. So we took cues from nature and the actual produce that supply chains transport. We developed an invisible plant-based protection that extends the shelf-life of fruits and vegetables, reducing food waste and giving the system some of the slack it needs. Along the way, we gained insight into why the food system itself is so fragile. 

The infrastructure that underpins the food system shares its hallmarks with mechanical, non-perishable industries - failing to acknowledge the variable, living nature of food. As the global population grows, a centralized, static system simply cannot keep pace to reach everyone with the food they need in time. Just as cell towers and satellites allowed us to more easily access the web without laying landlines, we need to rethink how the system connects at its foundation.

When we think of the food supply chain, it’s important to recognize that it also links people with different incentives and goals - each optimizing for their own role in the chain. We need to understand these supply chains as systems dependent on people, natural resources, and the interactions between them. Only then can we enable suppliers, sellers, policy makers, and consumers to see themselves as links in the chain; as part of a living system that can be optimized once the full view comes into focus. This living supply chain could secure the future of food - if we take the steps to build it now. 

How We Build the Living Supply Chain: Technology Inspired by Nature

As a company built on disruptive technology, we have learned many valuable lessons over the past decade. Adding more time to fresh produce value chains that are constantly struggling with perishability can help the overall system. We’re now deploying additional technology that defends the plant’s immune system, using the same plant-based components. Through advanced imaging and spectrometry, we can see the state of ripeness in fruits and vegetables, with the potential to completely change how food supply chains operate. Technologies to protect, predict and direct our fresh food to its best possible point of consumption are already here. For example, if a piece of fruit is close to maturity we can direct it to local sellers. If it still has more time, we can turn it toward more distant markets.  Solutions exist to build the food system we need - to build a living supply chain. But for such disruptive solutions to work, we can’t keep jamming them into a broken system. We need to change the rules of the game.  

At this year’s Davos, it became clear that no one is holding onto the status quo. We need to work together to unlock wider views of the supply systems we depend on for nutritious but highly perishable foods, and then use this perspective to optimize the system from farm to fork. We need all stakeholders to recognize and participate in the living supply chain that connects us all. Without this holistic view, only half the food grown will reach those who need it. 

We Have Six Months to Act – and Impact

In six months, global leaders will once again convene. In Egypt, this time, for the UN Climate Change Conference in Egypt (COP 27). At Apeel, we see this milestone as an opportunity. To not just join in the discussion – but to mark progress. 

At COP 26 last year, attendees pledged to ensure a “just transition” to net-zero economies – meaning that no one is left behind. This same principle should facilitate our transition to a living supply chain. We can achieve equitable food distribution and nutrition security, by bringing all stakeholders to the table to fill in the gaps in our understanding. And to advance solutions that account for the interactions within the system. With solutions like Apeel, we can ensure the foods we already produce reach those who need them, sustaining livelihoods for producers and food system workers along the way.

Available solutions can only work if they are supported and scaled. Entrepreneurs working in the food system welcome meaningful private-public partnerships. In the coming months, we invite collaboration with government leaders, NGOs, and other companies. To open access to collaborative research funding, structured in ways that are mutually beneficial. To rethink food system labeling, in a way that benefits consumers’ desire for transparency and can help reduce waste. To draw attention to the solutions, not just the problems. To prompt discussions that can find common ground, and align incentives for stakeholders across the supply chain to increase the resilience of the system - and not just the efficiency of its parts.

This is how we make the invisible, visible. This is how we build a living supply chain.

Because the world can’t wait to eat.