An international group of almost 50 scientists identified 75 emerging innovations and drew up eight action points to accelerate the transition to a sustainable and healthy food system. They published their action points in Nature Food.
Today, 40% of all land on Earth is used for food production. It contributes to land-use change, biodiversity loss, and greenhouse gas emissions. “Major changes in the way we produce our food are therefore required,” said Hannah van Zanten, one author of the report from Wageningen University & Research, in a press release. According to scientists, such a transition toward a sustainable and healthy food system requires a combined effort of farmers, consumers, food companies, and policy makers.
Under coordination of Mario Herrero from the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, 75 emerging technologies were identified that span the entire food value chain, from production and processing to consumption and waste management. They include innovations that are now commonplace, such as 3-D printing and vertical agriculture, and those that are on the cusp, including nitrogen-fixing cereals that do not need fertilizer or feed for livestock made from insects or produced from human sewage.
While the study focuses on the transformative potential of technologies, it also proposes eight action points that could accelerate the transition toward a more sustainable food system. The action points are as follows:
- Building trust. It is vital to increase trust between the actors of the food system, including farmers, consumers, and food companies. This involves a set of shared values about the desirability of different food system outcomes—for example, sustainability, provenance, and socioeconomic benefit.
- Transforming mindsets. The transformation of agriculture requires a learning mindset by the actors of the food system. The need to better understand a technology and to change mindsets arises particularly in the case of technologies whose advantages and disadvantages are still largely unknown for a broad audience—for example, reconfiguring photosynthesis.
- Enabling social license and stakeholder dialogue. Rising public awareness of the issues may create pressure from consumers, employees, investors, and government itself to push innovation in different directions (i.e., meat substitutes, nanopesticides). Without engaging these actors in responsible innovation, potentially powerful technologies may not be adopted (i.e., genome editing).
- Guaranteeing changes in policies and regulations. Expectations about future policies are essential for both public and private investments in technological change.
- Designing market incentives. The appropriateness of measures and incentives and the factors that are critical to the success of transformational innovations are often context- and technology-specific. Making these incentives accessible to new entrants is critical, as it is unclear whether transformative innovation will emerge from established industry players.
- Safeguarding against indirect, undesirable effects. There are real challenges in designing policy and investment frameworks to harness the transformational potential of new technologies. Unintended consequences that cause indirect, undesirable effects may be overlooked, especially where public acceptance remains to be determined.
- Ensuring stable finance. Because this transformative change is likely to be unpredictable and its impact variable, stable funding is needed to ensure technology exploration and piloting under real-world conditions to test its effectiveness.
- Developing transition pathways. The ‘how’ of achieving planned and actionable change is critical toward realizing these transformations. Transition pathways include the necessary understanding of technologies and their impact, desired science targets, transition costs, identification of winners and losers, strategies to minimize adverse effects (socially, economically, and environmentally), gradual steps to be taken by different actors, major aspects of institutional reframing (public and private), as well as the systemic innovation required to achieve the expected transformation.