Food security: Time to put our money where our mouths are
Our relationship with food has been a complex one for about 10,000 years, ever since the agricultural revolution saw our species evolve from hunter-gatherers to farmers. Over time, shocks to the human agricultural system have changed our diets, preferences and necessities. Today, our relationship with food has perhaps never been more complicated or more dependent on such a delicately connected global supply chain.
Most recently, the coronavirus pandemic forced us to reexamine our system of supply and demand, and, vitally, our food security. What has come into stark relief is this self-evident truth: We cannot plan for a sustainable future if we do not have a sustainable and secure source of food.
The world’s population is predicted to hit 9.8 billion by 2050, according to the latest UN forecast. To feed everyone, food production will need to increase by 70 percent on today’s levels. The message is clear: Food security is one of this generation’s most pressing global challenges.
With supply chains threatened by the global disruption caused by the pandemic, food security has come under the microscope. If fruit, vegetables, meat and wheat cannot be transported across borders, can each nation state and each community fend for itself? In the context of 2020, such questions make for uncomfortable thinking. For Saudi Arabia, this stark realization has brought the topic to the top of the national agenda.
While efforts, initiatives, policies and trade facilitation are already in place and underway, the fact remains that securing vital fast-moving commercial goods (FMCGs) and food products entirely from domestic suppliers is a significant challenge for even the most capable and resource-rich countries.
Each country must strike a balance between national food security and self-sufficiency in food production. To make matters more complex, consumer expectations have drastically shifted in the last century. Today, not having access to a single specific product can be considered a crisis. The interdependence of our global supply needs cannot be unraveled by ramping up domestic production alone.
Today, the way we deliver what we eat must reflect the needs of a globalized 21st-century society and be safeguarded against any potential disruption.
Considering this state of global connectivity, public and private sector partnerships should launch nationwide joint ventures to build food security matrices through regional trade agreements. Governments can explore sourcing raw materials and innovative distribution options. And private sector entities need to buy into the process to deliver support through efficient logistics and contingency plans. Closer to home, Saudi companies must play a more substantial role in influencing and directing existing bilateral trade partnerships. For Saudi FMCG companies to ramp up production and meet ever-increasing needs, government support is paramount.
To match public-private efforts to secure supply chains, rigorous measures must be implemented to ensure accessibility of stock and inventory. Contrary to best practices in retail and food processing, when a crisis hits, the market needs a sizeable back-up inventory until production can be ramped up again.
To get such an operation underway requires getting all stakeholders in the same place, with a shared agenda and a mutually desirable outcome. International bodies have been established on less. We should call for a forum to be established by government players to assemble public and private entities to steer a dialogue on marketplace protocols, best practice, and checks and balances.
Future-proofing the food supply chain requires much work, time and effort. It requires greater investment, forward-thinking strategies, an agile approach to logistics and operations, and teams capable of overcoming challenges ranging from airborne viruses to inaccessible trade routes. It requires systems innovation, from sourcing raw materials to distribution.
In recent decades, we have seen huge shifts in consumer habits, preferences and needs — from what we are eating to how we buy our food. Our supply chains must shift with them. We have seen sustainable delivery systems and practical inventories become integral to supporting the e-commerce boom to cater to demand for direct-to-consumer distribution from online points-of-sale.
When all is said and done, we return to the original premise and reason the agricultural revolution fundamentally changed our species: We eat to survive. Today, the way we deliver what we eat must reflect the needs of a globalized 21st-century society and be safeguarded against any potential disruption.
- Samer Kurdi is chairman of Sunbulah Group.