According to new research, a pipeline of disruptive technologies could transform our food systems, ecosystems, and human health, but attention to the enabling environment is needed to realize their potential.

In the next three decades, the world will need a 30–70% increase in food availability to meet the demand from an increasing population. In addition, the global food system will need to change profoundly if it is going to provide humanity with healthy food that is grown sustainably in ways that are not only resilient in the face of climate change but also do not surpass planetary boundaries.

Research to date on the future of our food systems has largely focused on incremental changes that are possible with existing technologies, but even that research found that incremental change will not be enough—we must radically transform our food systems. A new study led by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) published in Nature Food, offers insights into some disruptive, game-changing technologies that could make the difference for both people and the planet, as well as the social change needed to realize their potential. 

Investigating 75 emerging technologies, the international team of researchers, which included several IIASA scientists, identified an arsenal of highly promising options, many of them ready or near-ready. Their shortlist comprises technologies that not only contribute to a host of Sustainable Development Goals—climate action, reducing environmental impact, reducing poverty, and healthy food—but can also be tailored to a range of institutional and political contexts. The diverse pipeline spans the entire food value chain, from production and processing to consumption and waste management. 

Some we are already familiar with, such as artificial meats, 3D printing, drones, “intelligent” materials, and vertical agriculture. Others require a bigger stretch of the imagination: nitrogen-fixing cereals that don’t need fertilizer, spreadable biodegradable polymers that conserve soil moisture, and feed for livestock produced from human sewage. While the study focuses on the potential benefits of these technologies, it acknowledges that there will be tradeoffs; and not only for the environment and human health—genetic modification of crops is already hotly debated. There is also the risk that unequal access to costly technologies across the globe could increase inequality. Transparency will be key to safeguarding against unintended negative social and environmental impacts, and appropriate policies and regulations are needed to ensure benefits are distributed fairly. 

According to the authors, building the social trust necessary for new technologies to take flight will be the foundation of transformative change. New technologies, and especially the more controversial ones, require investment and political support to get off the ground, which in turn requires public support. Dialogue is the first step to repairing the trust between science and society. 

“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, lead author and Chief Research Scientist at CSIRO. “Our research lays out what is needed to create the essential dialogue and the enabling environment that will accelerate the innovation we dearly need.”

Adapted from a press release prepared by CSIRO and CGIAR.

Reference:

Herrero M, Thornton PK, Mason-D’Croz D, Palmer J, Benton TG, Bodirsky BL, Bogard JR, Hall A, et al. (2020). Innovation can accelerate the transition towards a sustainable food system. Nature Food DOI: 10.1038/s43016-020-0074-1

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