In our latest episode of Agri Matters, we spoke to Shen Ming Lee, author of the book Hungry for Disruption: How Tech Innovations Will Nourish 10 Billion by 2050. In the book, Lee talks about the need to leverage tech innovations around the world to nourish, not just feed, 10 billion people by 2050.
Hailing from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Lee is a recent graduate of Cornell University, where her interest in food broadened from her initial focus on hospitality and health food to encompass the wider agri and food system and its nexus with social justice and public health.
Prompted to learn more, Lee spoke to food entrepreneurs, investors, researchers and scientists to understand the future of our food system and how tech innovations can make it better, with those conversations culminating in the publication of her book last year.
In the podcast interview with Xin Yi Lim, Senior Director of Corporate Development at Pinduoduo (PDD), Lee says the premise of her book is that the world’s food system chain needs a fix, and that young people can play an important role by being educated on key issues and becoming advocates.
Below are edited excerpts of Lee’s interview on Agri Matters, hosted by PDD Podcasts.
Xin Yi Lim: Can you give us a brief review of some of the technologies or innovations that you explore in the book, along with key messages?
Shen Ming Lee: The premise of the book is that the future of our food system is hungry for disruption and it’s going to require a lot of new solutions for a lot of pressing food production problems that we have today because our system is fundamentally broken. And I think COVID has shown us that we must incorporate the power of science and technology to transform it. We should also still be able to retain some of the positives of traditional food systems, for instance, in regenerative agriculture.
The book is divided into four parts: Part 1 is about the digitization and automation of farms, how we’re using Internet of Things, artificial intelligence autonomous systems like robots and drones to connect the farm to the farmer and help to revolutionize how we manage a farm; Part 2 is novel farming systems — exploring how indoor farm tech and smart home micro gardens could radically change the current framework of field farming and make food production much more accessible, efficient and productive; Part 3 is re-engineering our food — where advancements in genomics and food science have allowed us to make this shift from engineering food to taste better to really ‘re-engineering’ it to actually be better for us and the planet. And the last part is about streamlining the global food supply chain, and diving deeper into technologies that can reduce food waste and increase transparency. In essence, the book is answering the central question of how do we leverage tech innovations to increase food production, not just quantitatively, but qualitatively, in an increasingly resource scarce future. And the reason why the subtitle has how do we nourish 10 billion instead of just “feed” is because it’s two fundamentally very different challenges.
XYL: Which area of agri-tech are you most excited about?
SML: There are two areas that I’m particularly excited about and I feel has a lot of potential, and those are in alternative protein and food waste. I’m personally very excited about fungi-based protein, cell-cultivated protein and micro-fermentation-based. And I think it’s really cool to see some of the work being done to move away from the same few commodity crop-based protein isolates that we’re used to seeing like pea protein isolate, soy protein isolate. Personally, something that I worry about, is we’re seeing a lot of the whole plant-based protein movement relying on these same protein isolates. We’re at risk of repeating the same issue of mono-cropping, dedicating more and more land to the same few crops with very limited diversification, which we did during the Green Revolution and that ultimately doesn’t result in a resilient food system. There’s also a lot of processing involved for the end product to include flavor masking agents and whatnot. I’m personally really excited about a lot of the companies in Asia, like Zhen Meat in China, Karana in Singapore, Phuture foods in Malaysia, that are really trying to localize these alternatives.
The second area about food waste is about looking at how technology and science can help. Number one, digitize our food supply chains to better manage and therefore be able to reduce food waste and loss. And number two, extend the shelf life a bit. Food waste is just one of the most underrated issues when you think about the fact that 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions is from food waste. I think a lot of the solutions that are focused on waste are at the consumer level but based on my research, even though 30% to 40% of food is wasted at the consumer level in developed markets, 30 to 40% is wasted at the post-harvest level in developing markets. And so, I really like to see more solutions aimed at optimizing our cold supply chains and transportation storage. In our GROW Singapore Food Bowl cohort, we have a company called CocoPallet using otherwise wasted coconut husk to create a wood pallet substitute, and another one called Fortuna Pools which are also using the husk to make ice boxes. I’m excited about being able to digitize our supply chain and using imaging tools like hyperspectral imaging. A lot of the food waste focused marketplaces that basically better bridge supply and demand, like Full Harvest and Silo in the US really get me excited as well.
XYL: Are there new trends or opportunities that you see emerging from the pandemic that may impact the development of agri tech?
SML: I think a lot of the brokenness and brittleness of our food system has really been revealed during this time. And I think for the pandemic, a silver lining for me is that it’s undoubtedly accelerated a lot of trends that I think have been a long time coming. One of the biggest ones is the shift in focus away from industrial animal agriculture towards more alternative forms of protein due to rising awareness about the carbon emissions-heavy animal production systems that we currently rely on, and awareness about the human health impacts of consuming too much meat. I’m not completely for no meat, but I’m for eating better meat and in lower amounts. I think the combination of these factors have pushed not just the entrepreneurial community, but also corporates and governments to think about how we can shift protein production towards other sources.
I think something else that has been brought by COVID is just the need for more decentralized regional and local food systems. We’re already seeing one small break in the system has a massive ripple effect and all this has just brought about the need to go a little backwards in how we produce food — produce in smaller quantities with greater variety in more hubs around each region and country. I think there’s a huge opportunity now and need to create more traceability and tracking systems in our food supply chain so we can quickly assess food quality, optimize the shelf stability of our food and reduce food waste and loss along the way. And again, you can only manage what you can track and currently, we haven’t fully digitized our supply chains to track a lot of information. So yes, I think that has brought about a huge win for this space and investing in it.
XYL: One of the larger categories that we have on Pinduoduo is actually agricultural produce, and in the wake of COVID-19, we have seen more people adopt online purchasing of agricultural goods. And one thing that we’ve noticed on our platform is that for a lot of people, it’s maybe unfamiliar at first, but with things like live streaming, we’re actually able to virtually bring the consumer to the fields. So, certainly it’s a way of decentralizing some of the traditional modes of distribution.
SML: I think that’s amazing that you guys are really doing that work to also educate the consumer and get more people learning about food and where it comes from, and also kind of empowering farmers to have that direct connection with consumers, because traditionally our food system has had so many middlemen. And I think one of the things that you brought up too is that COVID has really shortened our supply chains, and what we’ve seen happen in DTC (direct to consumer) in the consumer goods space is really happening for food now, which I’m really excited about. So yeah, I think the work that you guys are doing is amazing to really shine a light on that and educate both farmers and the consumer.
XYL: You’ve started some businesses with social missions and food at the centre of it. Could you share some of the lessons that you’ve learned as a social entrepreneur?
SML: One of the biggest things I’ve learnt being a social entrepreneur is just the power of storytelling and the importance of being very impact and mission driven and really being able to convey this to your community and your consumers. I used to run a meal prep startup in New York where every item we sold provided for communities in need. Our mission was to provide accessible ways to cook delicious meals with our items, but also to really be able to address and raise awareness about hunger and food insecurity. We held an event where we packed 12,000 meals for disadvantaged communities across Africa. It’s really stories of impact like this that is the power in any business and converts your customers into brand loyalists and brings them along a journey with you.
XYL: What do you think youths like yourself can do to make a difference to the agri food landscape?
SML: Well, first of all, I think we need more young people involved in the agri food space. Shoutout to TFF — Thought for Food — young next gen innovators, which is what we’re all about talking to. It’s rare to meet a lot of young people nowadays who have a lot of enthusiasm for Food and Ag and the movement beyond the kind of typical corporate trajectories that we see. When I was at university, I think I was probably one of the few people who was kind of going into the agri food tech space. I think part of that is also just the perception of food and traditional farming. It’s an age old industry. But, I think changing the perception of that is what I find really exciting. There’s so many new problems and therefore opportunities for us to take advantage of in the agri food space.
I think for young people who want to be involved, it’s really important to understand what is happening in our industry right now. You know, the issues and the information gaps that we’re seeing to really figure out where it makes sense for you to make a difference and what suits your interests and your passions.
Here are some resources she recommended: