Technologies that could transform our food systems

Thursday, 21 May, 2020

Technologies that could transform our food systems

Research to date on the future of food systems has largely focused on incremental changes possible with existing technologies. But even that research finds that incremental changes will not be enough, and that food systems will need to be transformed to sustainably cater to an increasing global population.

A study published in Nature Food, led by CSIRO and the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), provides insights into some new technologies that could transform our food systems, ecosystems and human health.

“We have come to a point where business-as-usual is not an option,” said Ana Maria Loboguerrero, a co-author of the study and the Climate Action Research Area Director at the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT.

Investigating 75 emerging technologies, the study identifies a range of promising options, many of them ready or near-ready. The shortlist comprises technologies that not only contribute to a host of Sustainable Development Goals — climate action, reducing environmental impact, reducing poverty, 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 of these technologies are familiar, such as artificial meats, 3D printing, drones, ‘intelligent’ materials and vertical agriculture. Others include nitrogen-fixing cereals that don’t need fertiliser, spreadable biodegradable polymers that converse soil moisture and feed for livestock produced from human sewage. The study focuses on the potential benefits of these technologies and acknowledges that there will be trade-offs.

Genetic modification of crops is hotly debated; there is also the risk that unequal access to costly technologies could increase inequality. Transparency will be key to prevent unintended negative social and environmental impacts, with appropriate policies and regulations needed to ensure that benefits are distributed fairly. Building the social trust necessary for the new technologies will be the foundation of change, according to the study’s 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,” said Philip Thornton, CCAFS Flagship Program Leader and a co-author of the study.

The research outlines what is needed to create the essential dialogue, and the enabling environment that will accelerate the much-needed innovation.

Top image caption: A drone monitors rice crops at the Americas Hub of the Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture in Colombia. Image credit: CIAT/Neil Palmer

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