The way we grow, process and consume food — our food system — underpins human social and economic development for centuries. Innovations such as domesticating plants and animals, bread-making, the plough or the refrigerator have transformed what we grow, how we grow it, and how we prepare and consume food.
But our food system now faces its biggest ever challenge. How to feed a growing human population to avoid diet-related ill-health (through too much or too little food) but in a way that does not drive climate change or biodiversity loss.
Research on the future of our food systems has largely focused on incremental changes possible with existing technologies. But even that research finds incremental change is not enough to make our food system more sustainable while also feeding a growing global population and maintaining our ecosystems’ health. A vast and systemic transformation of our food system is required.
Highly promising innovations
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 innovations with the potential to collectively transform the food system, and it outlines what is needed to make them succeed.
The innovations span the entire food value chain from production and processing to consumption and waste management. Some we are already becoming familiar with such as artificial meats, 3D printing, drones for managing agriculture, and innovations in urban production, such as ‘high-tech’ vertical farming in cities.
Others require a bigger stretch of the imagination such as cereal crops that do not need fertiliser because they take nitrogen from the air and fix it into protein, or feed for livestock produced from human sewage.
The study highlights the innovation pipeline is healthy and robust, with many start-ups emerging in the development of new technologies. But technologies alone are not transformative. The right social, economic, and political environments are needed for them to be disruptive, adoptable at scale, and able to create the positive change needed.
There are many potential benefits of the technologies identified but there are inevitable trade-offs with many other things we care about. What may be best for the climate may not be the best for biodiversity or health, and many of the impacts of new technologies are difficult to predict until they are deployed at scale.
And this applies not only to the environment and human health. Genetic modification of crops, for example, is already hotly debated in many places around the world, and there is the risk that unequal global access to costly technologies could increase inequality between people and societies. The study proposes eight interrelated social and institutional factors required to accelerate the transition towards a more sustainable food system.
Transparency is key to safeguarding against unintended negative social and environmental impacts, and appropriate policies and regulations are needed to create incentives for change and ensure benefits are distributed fairly.
And building the social trust necessary for new technologies to take flight is the foundation of transformative change. New technologies, especially more controversial ones, require investment and political support to get off the ground. But for real implementation they need public support. Dialogue around transparent evidence is the first step to repairing the trust between science and society — this research aims to open a space for that dialogue.
As many tech entrepreneurs see clearly, successful innovation requires a high failure rate – whether the failure occurs in technology development, or social acceptability. And, with a challenge this big and this complex, we need to attack from all sides with many arrows rather than rely on a single silver bullet.
While many of these technologies could yet fail, investment in their development, testing and social acceptability is crucial to the future of our food systems. Success in these factors will result in better health, wealth for our society and improved environmental outcomes for the planet.
Professor Tim Benton, Research Director, Emerging Risks; Director, Energy, Environment and Resources Programme and Professor Mario Herrero, CorrFRSE, Associate Fellow, Hoffmann Centre for Sustainable Resource Economy.
This article draws on research published in Nature Journal, titled Innovation can accelerate the transition towards a sustainable food system.