Accelerating the transformation of our food systems

June 17th, 2020

Food production shapes the lives of humans and the whole of the Earth. Be it the plough or the refrigerator, time and again innovation has transformed the ways we grow, process, and consume food over the last millennia.

Currently, almost 40% of all land on Earth is used for food production. The food system massively impacts climate and environment. It contributes to land use change, biodiversity loss and to greenhouse gas emissions.

“Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and meeting the Paris climate targets pose daunting challenges. To make substantial progress towards attaining these goals in the coming years, we must consider major changes in the way we produce and consume food” said Daniel Mason-D’Croz, co-author of the study and Senior Research Scientist at CSIRO.

Research to date on the future of our food systems has largely focused on the way technology can be used to make incremental improvements in the performance of the existing food system. And that research has found that continuous incremental improvement will not be enough to make global food systems capable of feeding the world’s growing population in a sustainable way. Instead a radical transformation of the food system is going to be needed.

An international team of researchers led by CSIRO has published a new study in the journal Nature Food. Investigating 75 emerging technologies, the study identifies an arsenal of highly promising innovation and establishes what is needed to unleash the potential of these to transform food systems.

“These technologies can contribute to achieving a host of Sustainable Development Goals—climate action, reducing environmental impact, reducing poverty, healthy food—and can also be tailored to a range of institutional and political contexts” said Mario Herrero, lead author of the study and Chief Research Scientist at CSIRO.

These technologies span the entire food value chain, from production and processing to consumption and waste management. Some we are already familiar with, such as drones, 3D printing and vertical agriculture. Others require a bigger stretch of the imagination: nitrogen-fixing cereals that do not need fertiliser or feed for livestock produced from human sewage.

The study accepts there will be trade-offs and many of the impacts of the technologies are still unknown. And not only for the environment and human health—genetic modification of crops, for example, is already hotly debated; there is also the risk that unequal access to costly technologies across the globe could increase inequality.

Vertical agriculture. Photo credit: Shutterstock

While the study focuses on the transformative potential of technologies, it acknowledges that technology on its own is not enough transform food systems.  The study proposes eight enabling factors that will be needed to unlock the transformative potential of this new generation of technology and accelerate the transition towards more sustainable food systems. Transparency will be key to safeguarding against unintended negative social and environmental impacts, and appropriate policies and regulations will be needed to create incentives for change and to ensure the benefits are distributed fairly.

Essential elements for accelerating the systemic transformation of food systems. These accelerators help achieve healthy and sustainable
diets, productive agrifood systems and improved waste management— three outcomes necessary to attain sustainable food systems. Figure from Herrero et al. (2020) Innovation can accelerate the transition towards a sustainable food system. Nature Food.

Building the social trust necessary for new technologies to be widely used will be the foundation of transformative change, say the authors. “New technologies, especially the more controversial ones, require investment and political support to get off the ground. And for real implementation you need public support. Dialogue is the first step to repairing the trust between science and society—this paper aims to open a space for that dialogue” explained Philip Thornton, CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security Flagship Program Leader and an author of the study.

“As many tech entrepreneurs see clearly, successful innovation requires a high failure rate. And with a challenge this big and this complex, we will need to attack from all sides. So, while many of these technologies could yet fail, investment in their development and testing is crucial to the future of our food systems,” said Mario Herrero. “Our research lays out what is needed to create the essential dialogue and the enabling environment that will accelerate the innovation we dearly need.” Success in these factors will result in better health, wealth for our society and improved environmental outcomes for the planet.

“Redirecting innovation in food systems towards a more sustainable, but also more productive trajectory is a challenge of truly existential proportions. New technology has a critical role, but this is not a job that can be left to science or the market alone.  Public policy has a critical role in framing, directing and negotiating what will be a highly contested change process and ensuring that the world’s most vulnerable people are on the winning side” said Andy Hall co-author of the study and Agrifood Systems Innovation Specialist at CSIRO.

Link to article: Herrero et al. (2020) Innovation can accelerate the transition towards a sustainable food system. Nature Food.