Pinduoduo Food Systems Forum: Building a resilient agri-food system with technology

Pinduoduo Food Systems Forum: Building a resilient agri-food system with technology

Staff Writer
Staff Writer
Pinduoduo Content Team
Staff Writer
Staff Writer
Pinduoduo Content Team
July 28, 2021

Speeding up and increasing innovation in agriculture can trigger the changes needed to meet the challenges of feeding a growing population, climate change and achieving the UN’s sustainable development goals, according to FAO’s representative to China.

The Smart Agriculture Competition co-organized by Pinduoduo is an example of a “timely” initiative to promote smart agriculture, which can substantially contribute to balancing the global carbon cycle and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, said Carlos Watson, FAO Representative to China in a speech delivered to the competition.

These efforts help the world to adapt and build resilience to climate change, as well as transform toward sustainable agriculture, he added.Deploying technology to improve sustainability is one of the key aims of the competition, which is co-organized by Pinduoduo, China Agricultural University and Zhejiang University, with the technical support of the FAO and Wageningen University & Research.

Dr. Agnes Kalibata, UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the 2021 Food Systems Summit, delivered the opening address. She pointed out the strong linkages between food systems transformation and climate, nature, health, and livelihoods, and urged the forum to approach these issues in a holistic manner.

She also highlighted the role of innovation and technology in transforming global food systems and praised the role that Pinduoduo plays in connecting Chinese farmers to the mass market and lifting them out of poverty.

Technology is the focus of this dialogue and could potentially be a game-changing enabler in this process. The fact that Pinduoduo, as an agriculture e-commerce platform, has been using technology to increase market access for over 12 million farmers in China, provides us with a vivid example. -- Dr. Agnes Kalibata

Speaking in a fireside chat at the forum, Pinduoduo Chairman and CEO Chen Lei and George Yeo, Visiting Scholar at the National University of Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, echoed the need for different stakeholders in the global food system to work together to tackle the challenge of feeding an increasing global population without further over-burdening the planet.

The situation we’re facing has never been more dire but the potential for building a better food system has also never been greater. By working together, I’m confident that we can create a more sustainable and equitable future with the tools of science and technology. -- Chen Lei

Speaking of how the public and private sectors can work together to foster innovation in agriculture, Yeo, who is an independent director of Pinduoduo, said that “involving all stakeholders is extremely important.”

In all countries, the people involved in agriculture are very conservative because it takes time, it takes time to grow rice, it takes time to grow a fruit, and people need predictability. When we introduce change to agriculture, people can be very upset if they don’t understand the reason for the change and they don’t understand what benefits it will give to them. Therefore, public-private cooperation in agriculture is absolutely important.             --George Yeo

During the session “Agriculture and Climate Change: Challenges and Opportunities,” panelists described how changing weather conditions are shifting the agricultural seasons and upending what and how farmers grow.

Shashank Kumar, CEO of Shashank Kumar, CEO of online seed-to-market platform DeHaat, described how farmers in India have gone from relying on groundwater to irrigate their fields to paying to water their crops because of the drop in the water table.

In Israel, “every year is a special year” as climate conditions are now so unpredictable that farmers can no longer rely on past practice to plan their planting cycles, according to Ofir Schlam, President of Taranis, an Israeli precision farming startup that employs ultrahigh resolution aerial imagery to identify zones in need of attention.

The climate changes have increased the need for precision agriculture technology to monitor weather, soil, and nutrient conditions, the panelists said. By measuring and adjusting the inputs accordingly, farmers can reduce the amount of water and fertilizer use, and lower the likelihood of infestation and disease through early intervention, the panelists said.

Similarly, advances in gene-editing technology have the potential to reduce the time it takes to develop new seeds that are more climate-resilient, said Ponsi Trivisvavet, CEO of Inari. It now takes between 7 to 10 years for conventional methods of breeding to as long as 15 years for genetic modification to gain regulatory approvals for new products, she said.

Some of the top investors in agriculture and food technology took part in our panel "Assessing the Agrifood Tech Investing Landscape - Where Are We In the Hype Cycle?" to discuss the "next big thing" in innovation.

The areas singled out by the panellists as potentially being the “next big thing” include precision fermentation, fintech for smallholder farmers and drone use in agriculture.

In precision fermentation, things that were "complete science fiction" five years ago are doable today due to the decline in cost of gene-editing , said Przemek Obloj, Managing Partner at Blue Horizon, a venture capital firm investing in alternative proteins.

Andy Ziolkowski, Managing Director of Cultivian Sandbox, highlighted the emergence of digital platforms in South America and Africa that are catering to smallholder farmers who have traditionally relied on larger companies for financing at significant cost.

China will lead the way in the use of agricultural drones for smallholder farmers for purposes ranging from surveying land to spraying pesticides and detecting diseases, said Anuj Maheshwari, Managing Director of Agribusiness at Temasek Holdings.

Even so, companies will have to overcome the hurdles of acceptance and scale when it comes to innovations in agtech and foodtech, the panelists warned.

I mean it looks great, it could be developed by a very sharp software developer from Silicon Valley, but when he takes it to a farm in Salinas or in the Midwest, and a farmer had to actually write a check to buy a product, will he? -- Andy Ziolkowski

As the world's most populous nation, China is both a big consumer and producer of food.

In the session "How China is Sowing the Seeds for A More Sustainable Food System," Prof. Zhu Jing of the Nanjing Agricultural University discussed the policy objectives of China's 14th Five-Year Plan.

Prof. Fan Shenggen of the China Agricultural University shared the findings from his report on rethinking agrifood systems for the post-COVID world. Prof. Jia Xiangping of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences discussed the findings of his study into the financing landscape for agri-food innovation.

The question of how to feed a growing global population sustainably was a central theme in the Pinduoduo Food Systems Forum. The issue was addressed by several panels from different vantage points.

Bruce Friedrich, founder of the Good Food Institute, said that alternative proteins should play a critical role in building a more sustainable food system given that they are less damaging to the environment.

While plant-based meats have made their way onto the menus of fast-food restaurants, cultivated meat has yet to break into the mainstream. Singapore became the first (and still only) jurisdiction to approve the commercial sale of cultured meat to consumers in December 2020.

In the panel “Where’s the Beef? How Cultivated Meat Will Make Its Way to Your Plate,” Maarten Bosch, CEO of Dutch startup Mosa Meat, and Prof Yaakov Nahmias, founder of Israeli startup Future Meat Technologies, addressed the questions of scale and regulation.

“For us, it's a matter of how quickly we can get this regulatory approval in place in order for us to start selling our product and to start making an impact,” said Bosch at Mosa Meat, whose startup created the first cultured beef hamburger in 2013 at a cost of 250,000 euros. “I think that's the big question.”

To bring down the cost on a mass market scale, about half a trillion dollars is required to ramp up global production not only in the developed world, but also in China, South America and Africa, Nahmias said.

He doesn’t see consumer acceptance as a long-term problem once more people learn about the production process.

People are not scared of where their beer is coming from, they're also not scared, where the yogurt is coming from, it's coming from, you know, stainless steel fermenters, the same as your wine. So why shouldn't your beef or chicken come from the same vessel? -- Yaakov Nahmias

Are regulators being too conservative when it comes to greenlighting novel foods?

On the panel, "Can Regulation Keep Up in the Brave New World of Food?” risk assessors acknowledged a bottleneck of knowledge can slow down the pace of approvals.

Dr Ben Smith, director of the Future Ready Food Safety Hub, said the gap in knowledge between scientists and regulators is often the bottleneck because the former is “really breaking the barrier” when it comes to innovation, he said.

There was a need to maintain a “certain separation of church and state when it comes to regulating industry,” yet ensure that the people doing the assessment understands the new technology, he said.

At the same time, consumer education and acceptance has to keep pace when it comes to novel foods. Prof. Jennifer Thomson, Emeritus Professor at the University of Cape Town, cited the example of genetically modified organisms (GMO) in her presentation.

Wilfred Feng, senior counsel at Dentons Law Offices, pointed out the “delicate balance” that must be struck when involving the public in consultation about regulations on novel foods.

What role can consumers play to contribute to a more sustainable and resilient agri-food system?

Panelists on the "How Can Consumers Eat Well Without Wrecking the Planet" session discussed the groundbreaking nature and limitations of the Eat-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health, which made recommendations on transforming eating habits, improving food production and reducing food waste.

David Yeung, founder of the Green Monday Group, said that eating plant-based meat represented an intermediate step to a healthier diet. For many people, making the switch to plant-based meat represented a significant upgrade in their diets, he said.

Prof. Professor Jeyakumar Henry of Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research called on companies working on alternative proteins to look at the “base of the pyramid” and develop foods that are low-cost but of high nutritional value.

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