Heidi Spurrell | 2nd July 2020 | 4min read

F&B business as (un)usual in a post-COVID era

I was recently invited to moderate a stimulating discussion with four APAC sustainability leads for the region’s first ever Food & Hotel Digital Week, where over 500 digital attendees listened in on our panel discussion to debate the future of F&B and Sustainability, and uncover whether it will be business as usual in the wake of the COVID-19 global crisis, or if businesses will be #buildingbackbetter.

Joined by Alistair Monument, Conservation Impact Director, WWF Asia Pacific, Roshith Rajan, Director Corporate Responsibility, Asia Pacific, Sodexo, Elissa Lane, CEO, Global Food Partners and Tim Hill, Key Accounts Director, South East Asia, Global Data, we learnt more about what role sustainability can play in coping with the pressure of COVID-19 on the foodservice sector.  Can the foodservice sector balance its need for recovery and growth with sustainable practices and is there a silver lining for sustainability in a post-COVID-19 world?

Food security is high on everyone’s agenda and we are seeing massive disruptions in the continuity of supplies. Farmers are ploughing tonnes of vegetables back into the ground, pouring milk down the drains, we are seeing harvests being left unpicked, and in an industry which relies on seasonal low paid hourly workers, many have been exposed to unsafe and unhealthy working environments as seen quite prolifically in the meat packing industries.  Yet at the same time, queues and queues outside of food banks are blatantly visible. The UN WFP announced that the number of those going hungry globally will increase from the currently 850 million, and more likely to triple.

However, it does raise the question, will the pandemic finally give us the impetus to start seeing the big picture, to stop pitting profit against purpose and consider the need for a food system which is more just and regenerative. Is this a new chance to pivot?  What will be our new norm and will there be a renewed sense of health and nature?


Eating less and better meat

Tim Hill, who heads up the ASEAN team in Singapore for research company, Global Data, shares his consumer insights when it comes to the hot topic of eating less and better meat.  “We are finding that the community in South East Asia has always been interested in alternative proteins, with a cultural love for soy and soy-derived proteins, which leads to a naturally more sustainable diet.  Given the media exposure of live animals in wet markets, and inventions such as Impossible Meat and lab grown shrimp created by Shiok Meats in Singapore, there is already a sustainability movement that is likely to survive the pandemic.”

In relation to meat consumption and understanding the link with animal habitats, Alistair Monument from WWF explains how the virus is affecting public opinion.  “We are seeing an increase in awareness of wildlife and the need for more sustainable consumption.  In fact, we just conducted a survey where over 90% of consumers in the region said they would be keen for the high-risk illegal wildlife trade to be banned.  We know that 70% of emerging infectious diseases come from animals and wild animal consumption, people are therefore understanding how connected we are to nature and natural resources and that food systems can be responsible for ill health and environmental degradation.  We need to look at how we can feed humanity using the same amount of agricultural land, or less, and to embrace biodiversity.”


Prioritising food safety 

Roshith Raja from food services and facilities management company, Sodexo, which serves meals to up to 100 million customers on a daily basis, explains that while the business has been severely impacted by the pandemic, they remain firmly committed to the company’s mission of over 50 years, which is to ‘contribute to the economic, social and environmental development of communities where they are based’ and has a clear insight into what customers are demanding, particularly in light of COVID-19.  “Staff and customer safety has been of paramount priority at Sodexo and the management created an Employee Relief Fund, where management agreed to forego part of their salary to pay into the fund and help to support those most at risk; frontline staff, cleaners and those most at risk of being laid off.  More recently, the company has created and launched a Medical Advisory Council to reinforce messages around safety and taking a medical perspective on all protocols and standards, to boost consumer confidence.”  In order to make food more accessible, the company is also looking at new food models and partnerships in order to reach consumers, including bringing in robotics, automation, digital click and collect.


Will animal welfare take a hit?

Pre COVID-19 there has been a growing movement towards adopting better animal welfare, such as more companies committing to using cage-free eggs.  Elissa Lane from Global Food Partners has been working with multi-national businesses, advising on responsible sourcing, working with farmers around animal welfare, and was concerned that these goals would be de-prioritised as a result of the pandemic. “Fortunately, we are seeing that even the hardest hit industries, such as hospitality and foodservice, are less focused on whether to move forward and more focused on how to do it, given current travel and budget restrictions.  We are noticing that consumers have been using time off work as an opportunity to learn more about where food comes from, and the link between animal welfare and public health.  We are looking at how to mitigate these risks, including improving farming practices and supply chain practices.”


Building back better

In terms of building a greener, better recovery, Tim Hill suggests that we might see two steps back in the first instance, but within 1-2 years, there is enough evidence to show that consumers care about sustainability and that these embedded attitudes around the world will re-emerge.


Alistair Monument agrees that while we have seen a lot of improvements over the last 15-20 around deforestation, for example, we are far off meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.  “Success will lie in more than landscape-based solutions, including working with communities, governments, legislation and land-planning to find success.  For example, agro-agricultural approaches in Thailand promote a new way of agricultural farming that takes into account the culture and biodiversity of the area, and transforming production methodologies that will bring more benefits to the community, including income, better living environment, more wildlife; basically taking a more holistic approach to planetary health.”

Roshish Raja is optimistic that sustainable practices will continue to be a priority for foodservice and that the pandemic has given people a chance to spend more time at home, cooking, exploring ingredients, health and sustainability.  “Surprisingly, 75% of food is prepared using only 12 plant and 5 animal species, yet there are 25,000 edible plants available.”  The Future 50 ingredients which have been developed with WWF and Knorr are a great starting point for developing future recipes with local carbon footprint and high nutritional value.  “We can also prioritise supporting local businesses and smallholders and driving the local economy.”

“Now is a good time to consider all the things that can be done around responsible sourcing and animal welfare, and setting up plans for down the line, when there are less travel and budget constraints,” explains Elissa Lane.  “There should be a greater focus on transparency, story-telling, communicating what businesses are actually doing, and plan to do in the future.  We are seeing greater collaboration between food businesses, producers, stakeholders and consulting companies, in order to get projects in the works, which can move even faster once the crisis is in a better condition!”

This inspirational debate demonstrated more than ever that in order for businesses to be future fit, then we need to build back better in a holistic way.  We need to factor economical, social and environmental issues in order to become more resilient, putting value into human wellbeing and natural capital.

The final message from Elissa is simple, yet poignant; “Don’t give up!”

With great appreciation to Informa Markets and for putting together an incredibly successful and inspiring inaugural Food & Hotel Digital Week, and a platform for honest, heartening and appetising discussion around the future of food!