Reardon’s new article in Science tackles the global revolution in food-delivery

Research and policy article on the food-delivery revolution has implications for nutrition, environment and jobs around the world

Food delivery is what’s for dinner. Innovations in technology and changes in food systems have made third-party delivery services increasingly popular around the globe.  Revenue for online food delivery services like Doordash and Grubhub have increased from $90 billion in 2018 to $294 billion in 2021 and are expected to increase to more than $466 billion by 2026. A new article in Science, co-written by MSU researchers, discusses what is driving changes and policy implications for the environment, nutrition and jobs. 

The authors, including MSU Department of Agricultural Food and Resource Economics University Distinguished Professor, Tom Reardon, and Ph.D. student Carolina M. Vargas, lay out a number of trends affecting the world’s turn towards food delivery, including COVID-19 lockdowns, increasing global urbanization, the movement of women into the workforce, and increasing international trade, among other factors. They note this growth is not limited to high income countries, though it started there.

Low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) have also been seeing increases in food delivery services in the last few decades. Information communication technologies have largely driven the expansion of delivery services, allowing even small restaurants to outsource delivery services and compete with larger chains. While this transformation was already occurring, COVID-19 spurred businesses to pivot toward delivery services rather than in-restaurant offerings.

Outcomes and implications for policy:

Job creation and good work is a key issue, particularly the creation and implications of unskilled, entry level positions. These jobs are often freelance or in the informal sector and because of this, worker protections may be weak and working conditions can be poor, including outcomes such as car accidents, injury, and long working hours. Policies that address the grey area of the self-employed could improve conditions for these workers, who are often rural migrants or immigrants.

Poor nutrition and the obesity epidemic have only been exacerbated by the increase in delivered food. Current research does not yet differentiate between restaurant and delivered meals, but in both categories fat, sugar and salt levels are much higher than in home-cooked meals. While we know people tend to eat more in restaurants than out of them, further research is needed to find out how delivered food compares. Considering the swift rise in delivered food services, policies to address poor nutrition in restaurant food may be needed.

Environmental impacts and climate change both need to be assessed, according to the authors. Of particular concern is packaging waste and food waste, with increasing pressure on already taxed institutional resources in LMICs to deal with all the flotsam of delivered food: trays, bags, napkins, sauce packs and all the sundries. Food waste is also a concern, though there is still more research needed to determine if consumers waste more food with delivery options than with home-cooked food. Transportation related CO2 emissions may or may not be increased with food delivery, depending on the method⁠—many use bikes⁠—and the ability of businesses to use efficient transportation methods.

Reardon and his co-authors note that a number of countries have introduced new policies meant to improve issues within the food delivery industry. It is possible that these new policies will help efforts to reach the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals of reducing malnutrition and poverty, creating decent work and economic growth, and encouraging sustainable farming. Further research will be needed to find out how the delivery of food will change the landscape of how we eat. Read the article here.

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