All sorts of cultures place food, the preparation and consuming thereof, on a proverbial pedestal. The Italians and French certainly do that, as do the Arabs and the Jews, to mention but a few. Eating, and gathering around the dinner table, becomes a celebratory event and not just a basic requirement of maintaining one’s hold on one’s terrestrial existence.
Even so, the message that, more than anything, eating is about physical survival, has been rammed home to us over the past couple of months or so. For many of us, moseying over to our local supermarket or grocery store has offered an almost exclusive opportunity to leave our domestic four walls and enjoy some fleeting sense of freedom and space.
The economic repercussions of the global lockdown have yet to be quantified, but experts in a variety of fields are predicting dire consequences for the supply of adequate amounts of food to millions of people around the world. Arif Husain, chief economist and director of research, assessment and monitoring at the United Nations’ World Food Programme (WFP) recently warned that: “COVID-19 is potentially catastrophic for millions who are already hanging by a thread.” Professionals at the UN and other organizations have said that more than a quarter of a billion people will face food insecurity in various at-risk parts of the world if swift action is not taken. That would represent a 100% increase on the figure of 130 million people who were said to be suffering severe food shortages in 2019.
That is a horrific statistic but, according to Prof. Yoram Kapulnik, the situation is, in fact, far worse. “There are over 800 million people in the world who go to bed hungry every evening,” he says, referring to what Husain calls “chronic hunger.” That’s a whopping more than a tenth of the world’s population. Kapulnik has a better grasp than most on such matters. For the past two and a half years he has served as executive director of the US-Israel Binational Agricultural Research and Development Fund (BARD). Prior to that he earned a crust as director-general of the Agricultural Research Organization - Volcani Center.
There are other ramifications of the lockdown, elsewhere along the food supply chain, which exacerbate an already deplorable state of affairs. “Corona caught us unawares. There is what we called the agricultural produce, food, supply chain. Each country determined it would have its own supply chain, in some form or other.” There are hefty logistics to be negotiated. “Israel, for example, imports grains for the preparation of bread and cookies, and for animal feed. We generally import close to 90% of that.”
But, while the ships continue to ply the seas with their precious nutritious cargo, the supply end situation has been significantly affected by the pandemic deployment elsewhere. “The thing is that countries have shut down to people from the outside, so if you are dependent on supplies from abroad, the supply chain has suffered massive adverse effects.”
There are also problems with the farm-to-retailer-to-consumer sequence here. “It is a local issue too,” Kapulnik continues. “Suddenly the farmers don’t have restaurants or hotels to deliver to. They are left with their produce, and nowhere to sell it to. That’s a serious problem.”
That and the wider employment picture, naturally, have serious financial consequences all round. “You have a million people who are unemployed, or not currently working, so their purchasing power has diminished. The farmers have found themselves with a lot of agricultural produce and no one to sell it to.”
There have been attempts to circumvent the logistical minefield. “There have been attempts to sell straight from the farmer to the consumer and all sorts of other things, including voluntary organizations that volunteered to collect deliveries, and all kinds of really nice ideas.” Kapulnik says that theory and practice have always run along the same lines. “It is not so simple. There are great distances to travel, and the volumes of the deliveries are small. I don’t think we have begun to comprehend the scale of the financial challenge here.”
Israeli agricultural producers are also at a significant disadvantage compared with their American counterparts, large-scale coronavirus numbers over there notwithstanding. “A farmer who has a hard time this year will find it difficult to recover the following year. First off, Israeli agriculturalists work from hand to mouth. They don’t have financial reserves to fall back on. They work with very small profit margins, because the marketing chains have suffocated them – Rami Levy and suchlike.”
Kapulnik notes that the residue from Israel’s socialist origins cuts off one avenue of recovery off at the state pass. “An American farmer who is having a hard time now will go to the bank and mortgage his farm. But the Israelis don’t have that option, because almost all land in Israel is owned by the state.”
All that doesn’t sound too promising. But, before I sunk completely into depression without a trace, Kapulnik started reeling off the groundbreaking work being undertaken by BARD, on both sides of the Pond, to address the current agricultural-financial predicament. “We are a very efficient means of identifying innovation at the earliest stages, of research and in the academic world. For the past 40 years the fund has worked in a very orderly way. It has always known how to differentiate between a good idea and a great idea,” he declares.
According to the BARD website the fund has been doing its best to ensure to try to stay ahead of the game. BARD was established in 1977 by the governments of the United States and Israel. The organization began with a pretty solid financial base courtesy of a $110 million endowment fund provided in equal parts by both countries with an annual supplementary bilateral allocation of $1m. each. The sum of $7m. is annually awarded to grants and fellowships of joint US-Israel cutting-edge agricultural R&D.
First and foremost, BARD sets to combine the talent, skills and experience of US and Israeli scientists to jointly address key agricultural challenges that concern both countries. There are incremental gains to be had from the transatlantic confluence. As the fund’s official blurb explains: “This collaboration serves as a force multiplier, and the synergy generates far greater achievements than would have been attained with scientists working separately. BARD also supports international workshops and offers fellowships for postdoctoral research, senior research scientists and graduate students, laying the groundwork for the future scientific advancement of both countries while enhancing bilateral relations.”
The fund has been putting its investment money where its mouth is, feeding over $1 billion – in contemporary dollar terms – into a total of 1,330 research projects. According to BARD’s official figures, that investment has yielded 16-fold economic benefits relating to 20 case studies selected for external economic analysis. Not bad going. “In fact it is 20-fold if we take capacity building into account,” Kapulnik notes, adding that the organization attaches great importance to catching ideas as close to their embryonic stage as possible. “You have to have a good enough magnifying glass in order to discern things when they are still at the academia stage, and haven’t yet gone to industry.”
The latter is an important component of the BARD route to scientific and financial success, with the idea of improving the lot of the public as a whole. “The fund is now proposing to reinforce these efforts,” Kapulnik says. “We want to bond academia with industrial companies so that, together, we can work in areas that will provide a solution for those weak links we have identified during the corona crisis.”
All that sounds highly commendable, and tailor-made to help us begin scrambling our way gradually out of this mess. But what about the brass tacks? What do BARD and Kapulnik suggest we do, at street level, where it really matters? “One of the shortages we have noticed in current nutrition is protein,” he suggests. “We need to have more vegetable-based protein.” That, in particular, is aimed at the growing numbers of Israel who opt for veganism, besides all the vegetarians out there, and the statistics indicate there are quite a few out there who prefer not to kill in order to stay alive.
It is said that, in 2012, just 1% of Israelis were vegans and, by last year, that had shot up to 5% or more. According to marketing media company StoreNext, in 2018, sales of vegan substitutes for dairy products totaled NIS 273 m., representing an impressive leap of 40% compared with 2015.
That, says Kapulnik, means many Israelis require a higher intake of protein to maintain a healthy nutritional balance, and maintain their energy levels. “Food has to be high quality and healthy,” he stresses. “We have to conduct research that will lead to an increase in the functional value of food. The food should contain a high content of vitamins and minerals and antioxidants.”
While it may be fun to pop along to our local open-air market, that is if coronavirus lockdown constraints allow, we should not be so sure that the fleshy peaches, alluring dark plums and generously proportioned oranges are actually covering all our vitamin needs. The fruit and veg sprawled across the stalls may look enticing, and at the right price but, according to Kapulnik, they may not be quite as fresh as they seem. “The average apple we eat was picked nine months before we buy it. No one knows what nutritional value it still has. R&D has to address not only the quantity but also the quality of the food. We have to define processes that are able to assess the quality, freshness and the health value of the food products we buy.”
That is a multifaceted assignment. “We shouldn’t just be loading the products on a truck and sending them off. Today we have the ability to manufacture intelligent packaging that preserves the freshness of the agricultural product.” The nutritional content is also affected by the cooling-heating continuum the products traverse as they may lie about in the sun after picking before being refrigerated in storage facilities and trucks, and then thaw out in greengrocer and market storerooms before we get to shell out our hard-earned cash on them. BARD, says Kapulnik, also considers that aspect of the farm-to-consumer table route. “We can use climate-control technology and other ways of ensuring the freshness of produce.”
Kapulnik is also keenly aware of the environmental sides to the pandemic, with one of the unexpected benefits of lockdown and social distancing being the concomitant drop in pollution from vehicles, with the cleaner air possibly having a beneficial effect on asthmatics and, indeed, anyone with coronavirus symptoms. “One of the lessons we have learned from the pandemic period is that we have to bring the place where the produce is grown and the place where it is consumed closer together.” One way of achieving that is by enabling city dwellers to grow their own food, right where they live. “There is a developing trend in the United States right now called vertical farming and indoor farming. That can generate agricultural produce on a much higher quality level, without chemical spraying. And growing things indoors means there is less exposure to pests.”
Vertical farming entails producing food in vertically stacked growing layers that have their own watering systems, with LEDs mimicking sunlight. This encourages agriculture in urban spaces, and providing numerous benefits – environmental, nutritional and emotional – along the way. Mind you, there are some obstacles to be overcome before we can all obtain all the fixings for our salad by stretching out a hand to our balcony or plants growing in the corner of our living room. There is a sunlight – natural or artificially provided – factor to be considered. “Leafy things like lettuce can be grown easily because the amount of light, and the cost of the energy required, are affordable. But we still have to work out how to grow other things, like tomatoes, garlic, peppers and carrots.”
Cultivating food in an upward direction can also help to offset what Kapulnik sees as an increasing shortage of resources. “The amount of land for agricultural crops, around the world, is diminishing. There is also less water available for agricultural use. So, for example, if you are going to grow corn you should use the type of corn that will give you the greatest yield.” That means we can’t always rely on Mother Nature alone. “If we endeavor to stay as close as possible to nature we are liable to miss the point – of providing everyone in the world with food. We always have to balance that. We need to aim for sustainability within the constraints of our reality. We have to maximize yields within these limitations. We have to leave our children land, water and the environment, on at least the same level as we were given by our parents.”