"We have in our toolbox the ability to change the system… but we need to deliberately invest in it to do so." — Dr. Anastasia Volkova, CEO and Co-founder of Regrow
Around 2.3 billion people in the world were moderately or severely food insecure in 2021 – 350 million more compared to before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the World Health Organization. Nearly 924 million people (11.7% of the global population) faced food insecurity at severe levels. While grocery store shelves may remain stocked in the world’s wealthiest nations, there is no doubt that we are in the midst of a global food crisis that has left billions in developing countries wondering where their next meal will come from.
In the past few years we’ve seen disruptions in our supply chains and our labor force. We’ve seen barriers in food production and distribution. We’ve seen prices soar for food, fertilizer and fuel. These disruptions can be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and its impact across the globe, and geopolitical conflicts like the Russian invasion of Ukraine. So how can we address this crisis and mitigate the factors that have become such a detriment to our food systems, before things get even worse?
Regrow CEO Anastasia Volkova, Cargill CEO David MacLennan, and Sara Menker, CEO of Gro Intelligence, discussed these issues this week at the Bloomberg New Economy Forum in Singapore. The forum is an event designed to facilitate face-to-face discussion among world leaders and spur innovative solutions to the world’s most daunting challenges. Volkova joined as a contributor and member of the 2022 class of Bloomberg New Economy Catalysts.
In their discussion, “Action-Planning for the Global Food Crisis,” panelists addressed the reality that our current food crisis has been building for some time and has already brought harsh consequences to the world’s most vulnerable communities.
Menker, whose company uses artificial intelligence to forecast global agricultural trends and battle food insecurity, provided an example: “When we talk about the price of wheat, just looking at a futures price as opposed to the domestic price…when you look at what the price change has been over the last two years, in the US, it's up about 66%. But in Sudan, it's up 1,900%...in Syria, it's up 700%. These numbers are not small.”
Each panelist brought their own personal experience to the discussion. Volkova, a native Ukrainian, shared her perspective on the war in Ukraine as a catalyst for our global food issues:
“Ukrainians, as you can see, are very brave people that understand that they live in and steward the breadbasket of the world...
...And I think there's a lot of hindrances that could be removed for us to actually release some of the pressure on the food crisis… And if we can get better diplomacy to have better visibility or control over the actual exports from Ukraine, I think it would be a very welcome step forward.”
This discussion took place just a day before news broke that Russia had agreed to extend an agreement to allow grain exports from Ukrainian ports through a safe corridor in the Black Sea. The deal, brokered by the United Nations and Turkey, was set to expire on November 19, and will now continue for at least another 120 days. This provides the countries that depend on Ukrainian exports with at least some short-term hope; but what is the long-term solution?
MacLennan, who runs an agricultural company that has weathered more than 150 years of global trends and changes, believes that data-driven agriculture is the way forward. “So, innovation in terms of technology, the ability to produce more sustainable crops, and the partnership of traditional agriculture and food companies with startup technology companies…that's how we're going to have more sustainably produced agriculture,” he said.
“The partnership between farmers and agricultural merchandisers and handlers and technology companies…that's how we're going to get better.”
At Regrow, we use advanced science and technology to provide food companies with the agronomic and environmental data they need, in order for them to incentivize growers in their supply chains to adopt climate-smart, regenerative agriculture practices. As Volkova explained on the panel, “The introduction of regenerative agriculture as a solution will actually reduce some of the pressures on the climate and the economy, whilst of course, introducing more demand for investment into that to correlate to the changes that we need to see.” To provide an example of how this will help build a more circular economy, she mentioned the current high prices on synthetic fertilizer, which most growers now rely on to produce a high-yielding crop. “If you are regenerative, you're not so dependent on synthetic inputs, which allows you to produce in a way that's more decorrelated and be even more resilient [to both climate and market changes].”
As Menker ended the discussion, “there is no magic bullet.” We cannot prevent many of the factors that have led us to our current crisis, and we cannot predict or prevent future challenges. However, we can mitigate the effects of these challenges and work together to build a food system that’s more resilient to adversity, more accessible for communities across the globe, and better for the future of our planet.