If “wet markets” in Wuhan, China, played an early role in the spread of COVID-19, as is widely believed, the coronavirus pandemic has plenty of company: SARS, MERS, Ebola and other diseases also migrated from animals to humans. It’s impossible to overstate the role of the world’s food supply in the suppression or transmission of infectious disease.

By using the following food supply-related principles to inform business and regulatory decisions, in fact, we could eliminate or, more likely, minimize the scale and scope of the next pandemic:

  1. Accelerate clinical advancement and digital innovation aimed at suppressing infectious disease in livestock.
  2. Take steps to prevent these animals from becoming disease vectors that transmit infectious pathogens to humans (or other animals).
  3. Advance and make use of digital technologies to prevent or limit the introduction of infectious pathogens to the world’s food supply.

Food for Thought

Each of the following measures, in which we expect to see continued advancements over the next three to five years, addresses at least one of these goals.

  • The continued progress of genetic engineering in food stocks. This measure is critical to the progression of Principle 1, above. While there is a robust debate around genetically modified organisms (GMO), humans have been using the tools at hand to modify both crops and livestock for thousands of years; scientific advances have simply enhanced our ability to do this with a higher degree of specificity that greatly benefits humanity.

    We expect this practice to gain momentum in the wake of COVID-19 due to regulatory and consumer demand around disease vectors. For two decades, rice has been augmented with nutrients that fight malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies, greatly benefiting developing nations. Moreover, genetic engineering could potentially have prevented the African swine fever that, as recently as 2019, killed more than half of China’s pigs, driving up pork prices and roiling global markets. Experts maintain that African swine fever, hardly a new phenomenon, could have been virtually stamped out through genetic manipulation. Indeed, infectious diseases of livestock tend to appear repeatedly and frequently in developing nations, and their elimination could go a long way toward reducing rural poverty there.

    Virtually all popular proteins are manipulated in various ways for numerous purposes, including yield and manageability. In Norway, an experiment is under way that would use CRISPR gene editing to “grow” salmon that are both larger and healthier. The coronavirus pandemic is expected to increase this type of gene manipulation. Of course, there are potential downsides of this practice. Genetic engineering means larger herd sizes, which in turn means more bodies in the same space. This increases the likelihood of disease mutation and transmission – and the probability that when a disease does thrive, its effect is devastating.

  • Advances in mass spectrometry, chromatography and other technologies that improve disease identification. These measures address Principles 1 and 2 above, as they’d suppress infectious disease in produce and livestock, thus reducing the chance that they serve as disease vectors. Mass spectrometry – the instrumented identification of a substance’s chemical makeup – has gained favor as a method of rapidly and non-invasively testing food for pathogens. This advancement bears watching, particularly because it’s following the familiar tech adoption curve of “faster, better, cheaper.”

    Already, smartphones can be used as pocket spectroscopes, allowing consumers to identify potentially harmful bacteria and allergens simply by scanning their food in a restaurant. Chromatography (the separation of a mixture by passing it through a medium) is also making stunning advances in portability and affordability. Technologies that were once physically large in size and required specialized knowledge to use are getting smaller and smarter. As a result, we now have point-of-care diagnostic tools accelerating time to treatment. Indeed, the effort to address and eventually cure COVID-19 is benefiting greatly from such tools.

  • Progress in robotics and autonomic factories and transport that minimize the role of humans. These efforts align with Principle 3, above, as they reduce the introduction of pathogens into the food supply. COVID-19 has caused many to consider for the first time just how many hands touch food items. Looking into the future, it’s eminently sensible to minimize human contact with foodstuff. There is plenty of activity on this front. Already, the mechanization of farms has dramatically reduced the number of field hands required. And major growers such as Driscoll’s are working to standardize fruit size and weight to further mechanize the manual process of picking blueberries, strawberries, etc.

    Vertical indoor farms like California’s Iron Ox and Japan’s Spread take this mechanization a step further; not only do they deliver 80% of the crops in the same footprint, but they also do so without chemicals, herbicides or pesticides. Perhaps most importantly, in a world in which water is a growing issue, robotic farms are said to use 99% less water than their traditional counterparts. 

    And that’s just part of the story. Machine learning, paired with imaging technology, has given rise to the noninvasive, real-time scanning of food on the factory floor. Such scanning can, for example, identify foreign objects in all manner of produce and measure the freshness of meat, among other things. Because the inspection process cuts out humans, it may have a positive impact on maintaining process consistency, leading to improved food quality. Finally, autonomous delivery continues to build momentum, with such powerhouses as Amazon, Renault, Toyota and Alibaba joining startups Starship Technologies and Boxbot in the battle to carry groceries (among other goods) the last mile.  

Preventing the Next Pandemic via Technological Augmentation

While the progress noted here, as well as other advancements, holds great promise for mitigating the impact of the next pandemic, humankind must also bear in mind the Hippocratic Oath, after a fashion, and cease to do harm. As we continue to tackle food-supply-related challenges, we must also ask uncomfortable questions about humankind’s role in this and future pandemics — and indeed in other mega-scale healthcare crises.

It’s imperative that we address how climate change, in particular, will impact the preparation and consumption of food. Infectious water-related diseases are a major cause of morbidity and mortality worldwide. Although much of this disease is caused by “classical” water-related pathogens such as typhoid and cholera, newly recognized pathogens and new strains of established pathogens are being discovered that present important additional challenges to both the water and public health sectors.

Additionally, as the World Health Organization has noted, the effect of climate change on the water supply will cause significant human migration, leading to conditions that make it harder to provide sufficient access to clean water. Animal migrations will also lead to increased changes in habitat and disease transmission. In both North America and the UK, ticks have shifted northward, bringing with them diseases to which the inhabitants may lack immunity. Since 2001, the UK has seen a 1,000% increase in cases of Lyme disease.

In short, changes introduced to the environment by humans, at both the macro and micro levels, continue to introduce risk factors we cannot anticipate. However, technology’s growing ability to make the food supply safer gives reason for optimism for better handling the next pandemic.

Desmond Dickerson, a manager in Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work and author of the report “AI, Automation and Appetites: How Technology will Feed the Future,” contributed to this essay.

This blog is part of our special report on the future of infectious disease. Stay tuned for more blogs on this topic.

For more information, visit our special section on COVID-19.

Brian Williams

Brian Williams

Brian is Cognizant’s Chief Digital Officer for Life Sciences and is responsible for designing digitally enabled solutions to facilitate care access and... Read more

Peter Borden

Peter Borden

Peter Borden is Chief Digital Officer for Healthcare at Cognizant, responsible for strategy, innovation, strategic partnerships and special programs across Cognizant’s healthcare... Read more