Innovations in food systems: the key to human and planetary health
Food systems – the technical, economic, social and environmental processes and actors through which we feed the world’s population – are at the heart of our global health and sustainability crises, but they can also help to address these challenges. This column argues that innovations in technologies, policies, and institutions will be critical in reshaping food systems for nutrition, health, inclusion, and sustainability. Global cooperation will be key to ensuring that innovations in food systems are widely disseminated and contribute positively to global development.
The world has made tremendous progress in improving food security and nutrition. The proportion of people experiencing hunger fell from 14.7% to 10.6% between 2000 and 2015. And we’ve made progress on undernutrition, with the prevalence of child stunting dropped from 40% to 23% between 1990 and 2015.
Food systems – the technical, economic, social and environmental processes and actors through which we feed the world’s population – have played a huge role in this progress. Yet these systems are also at the heart of our global health and sustainability crises.
After a period of prolonged decline, world hunger is on the rise; millions of children are still too short for their age; and nearly two billion adults are overweight or obese. These different forms of malnutrition have become some of the leading causes of disease in the world.
At the same time, food systems use nearly 85% of the world’s fresh water, and almost a quarter of all global land is degraded. Food systems contribute around one fifth of all greenhouse gas emissions.
Yet food systems have the unique potential to fix many of these problems – and they can also help to meet broader development goals, such as employment and women’s empowerment. But to do so, we need a new food system that delivers on both human and planetary health. Innovations to food systems in technologies, policies, and institutions will be critical.
Technological innovations are key to achieving multiple wins, and it will be critical to promote technologies with strong evidence of their benefits. Yield-enhancing and conservation technologies, such as remote sensing, precision agriculture, and no-tillage, have shown measured impacts on productivity and efficient use of natural resources. And evidence on nutrition technologies, such as biofortification, has shown the potential to improve human health and nutrition significantly.
Farmer-led innovations will also continue to be critical, as they can help to reduce the duration of food shortages and save scarce resources. For example, planting basins for maize improved food security and water conservation for communities in Kenya.
There are also exciting new and potentially transformative technologies. Alternative proteins such as lab-grown meat can help to reduce agricultural greenhouse gas emissions and resource use; gene editing for seed improvements can produce more crops and improve nutrition outcomes; big data and analytics can lower transaction costs and mitigate risk for farmers; and blockchain can enable traceability and transparency along the food chain.
These technologies should be scaled up, but only with careful consideration of their impact on smallholders, children’s nutrition, and employment.
Innovations go beyond technology. Policy innovations are also critical as they can help to make priorities of both human health and the environment. Governments should eliminate subsidies for nutrient-poor foods and convert those funds to investments for more nutritious crops such as fruits and vegetables.
Subsidies for agricultural inputs can also lead to overuse of inputs and natural resources, exacerbating land degradation and emitting more greenhouse gases. The subsidies should be better targeted so that they have greater returns in terms of economic efficiency, nutrition, and natural resource use – or could provide direct income or productive support for vulnerable groups, including smallholders, women, and young people.
Moreover, taxing emissions-intensive foods such as meat could reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the use of natural resources, and avoid hundreds of thousands of deaths, as such foods are associated with dietary and weight-related risk factors. But such taxes should only be considered for wealthy countries that already consume too much meat.
Innovations in financing, such as blended finance between development partners and the private sector, as well as carbon markets, can provide capital for multi-stakeholder and multiple-win investments.
Institutional innovations can create an enabling environment for these policies and technologies to have broad, inclusive impact. Land reform is critical to strengthen resource rights, especially of women. Evidence shows that land registration for women in Rwanda increased the likelihood that farmers will undertake longer-term investments such as soil conservation for sustainability.
Inclusive marketing chains should be supported, especially those that link stallholders to modern food value chains – as was done with India’s improved dairy chain, which boosted the production and quality of milk through cooperatives, chilling plants, refrigerated transport, and other improvements to the value chain.
Institutional accountability must also be strengthened by promoting effective governance mechanisms that use data to enhance monitoring. For example, the Africa Agriculture Transformation Scorecard provides accountability by tracking progress of commitments made through the Malabo Declaration to improve livelihoods by transforming agriculture.
Lastly, the global development community should promote science and evidence on food systems. Perhaps a scientific platform for food systems comparable to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) could provide the basis for food systems transformation at a global level.
The way forward
Food can fix many problems, but we must fix food systems first. Innovations in technologies, policies, and institutions will be critical in reshaping food systems for nutrition, health, inclusion, and sustainability.
To develop and implement these innovations to ensure no one is left behind, we must work together – across disciplines, countries, and sectors. Global cooperation will be key to ensuring that innovations in food systems are widely disseminated and contribute positively to global development.
Shenggen Fan (樊胜根) has been director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) since 2009.