Technology to Feed the World
The world’s population is projected to grow to nearly 10 billion by 2050 – an increase of 2 billion people from today – with the population of sub-Saharan Africa alone expected to double. As governments across the globe grapple with the impacts of climate change and the rise in food insecurity due to Covid-19, an existential question is also coming into focus: How do we prepare now to feed 10 billion people?
Although our current food system fails to meet the needs of people and the planet, there are reasons to be optimistic about the future. Emerging technologies present us with a growing range of opportunities to transform our food and agriculture systems. To harness these opportunities, policymakers, scientists and entrepreneurs must:
- Identify the opportunities these innovations present for health and nutrition, our natural environment and economies.
- Uncover any unintended consequences, trade-offs and gaps in our understanding of these innovations.
- Assess their relative maturity and feasibility, and identify those that hold the most transformative potential.
- Identify barriers, and therefore the questions that need to be answered, to successfully implementing new innovations globally and at scale.
This paper explores these key areas. It illustrates the significant potential of some of the most transformative food and agriculture technologies, while outlining some of the underlying challenges of bringing them to scale responsibly. It also begins to address some policy areas that warrant attention from governments and highlights the questions that we must address to create a food system fit for the 21st century – a system that delivers for everybody, everywhere.
High-level messages for governments:
- Countries should embrace food technologies and seize the economic, environmental and health rewards.
Food systems are intimately connected, meaning that by transforming them, we can collectively tackle some of the world’s biggest challenges. Food technologies enable us to improve health and nutrition, promote environmental sustainability and deliver economic growth. Governments should seize this significant opportunity.
- Scaling food technologies requires overcoming several barriers. Governments should lead the effort.
Technology in itself does not deliver positive change. It’s how we develop and deploy these technologies that matters. There are some key barriers to scaling up food technologies: vested interests, lack of demand, lack of risk capital, infrastructure and inputs such as power, regulatory burdens, and basic science/R&D.
Although overcoming these barriers will require several actors to come together – including innovators, scientists and investors – governments hold significant responsibility for setting the ambition and driving the direction of change. Governments also have a role to play in providing funding, infrastructure and innovative regulation.
- Governments should act now to save paying the price later.
Food systems urgently need reform in the face of climate change, biodiversity loss, food insecurity and deteriorating public health. As this paper sets out, the benefits of scaling up food technologies are clear.
Transformative technologies in our energy system have been available for years, yet large parts of the world are still reliant on coal. We have been far too slow to deploy clean energy technologies. We can’t afford to make the same mistake with our food systems. It’s not a question of if, but when; at some point trends will force change. Nations with foresight should support the development of the markets of the future.
Key questions to address:
As part of this analysis we have identified five sets of questions that provide a starting point for governments that want to grasp the opportunity provided by food technologies. We welcome engagement from all actors interested in helping to address these questions.
- How do we make the unit economics of food technologies work not just in California or the UAE – but globally?
- What is the role for government versus the private sector to drive food tech to scale?
- How can we help farmers adopt these technologies, and make technologies more attractive to retailers and consumers?
- How might employment be affected? How can we make sure we create more winners than losers?
- Which technologies should be prioritised? Can and should multiple technologies work simultaneously, or will some compete with others?
Introduction: The Need for Another Agricultural Revolution
We have a significant opportunity to transform our food systems and improve the state of the world in the 21st century.
Food systems are complex, adaptive systems with many interlinking components. They are vital to the health of human beings, our natural environment and our economies.
In many ways, our global food system is hugely impressive. As the global population has grown, so too has agricultural production. Over the past 50 years, the green revolution has enabled the production of cereal crops to triple with only a relatively small increase in the area of land under cultivation.
We can attribute much of this success to farmers, who have adapted and embraced new technologies. The combine harvester welcomed an era of intensive, industrialised farming – and we have come a long way since its invention in the 1830s.
But today the global food system is also affected by deep inefficiencies, inequalities and externalities. How we grow, process, transport, consume and waste food is damaging both our health and our planet. Food systems already contribute up to 30 per cent of total global emissions, and agricultural land use is the main driver of deforestation. Obesity is on the rise globally, yet at at the same time food insecurity and hunger is increasing. Meanwhile, our soil is degrading at such a rate that we risk losing the world’s topsoil within 60 years.
As the population increases, demand for food will continue to grow. And without another agricultural revolution, it is possible that the harmful elements of the food system will inflict increasing amounts of damage.
Fortunately, new technologies and breakthroughs in science offer an opportunity to radically improve our food system.
Scaled up, new food technologies could mean that we can feed more people affordably and healthily, while promoting the health of our planet and preserving natural resources.
But delivering on this future will not be without challenges. And without progressive actions there is a risk that many transformative technologies won’t be implemented responsibly or at sufficient pace or scale.
Now is the time to discuss the future of food. Covid-19 has exposed the fragility of food systems all over the world, particularly in developing countries. Sound, responsive and resilient agricultural policies will be vital to “building back better” and achieving net-zero commitments.
The UK will need to think hard about what its food system will look like post-Brexit. Part Two of the National Food Strategy – the first independent review into England’s food system in 75 years – is due to be published. The strategy will present a comprehensive plan for transforming the food system, and it is expected to set out how the benefits of the coming revolution in agricultural technology can be maximised. The EU is also striving to develop a food system fit for the 21st century over the next ten years with its Farm to Fork Strategy.
As we set out in our new progressive agenda, now more than ever we need to deliver the practical benefits of new technologies to all people in the ways that matter most. As economies across the globe continue their recoveries from the Covid-19 pandemic, we must evaluate the technologies that have the most potential. We can then accelerate their deployment, bringing them to scale responsibly. The countries that successfully grasp these opportunities can lead the world in the future of food.
An Opportunity to Transform Our Food Systems
There is a broad consensus on what we want our food systems to do: deliver enough affordable and nutritious food to every person in the world, within planetary constraints and without jeopardising future generations and the environment, while providing economic opportunities.
Our food system has the potential to provide increased choice, with high nutritional value, so people can live long and healthy lives. It can provide jobs and incomes fit for both the developed and developing world. It can also work to promote biodiversity and preserve natural resources, and – unlike other sectors – it can actively remove emissions from the atmosphere and reduce the damage caused by climate change. By doing so it can provide food security for every person in every country.
Food System Opportunities vs. Where We Are Now
Although the global food system has demonstrated a remarkable ability to adapt over time, the way we currently produce and consume food fails to deliver to its full potential. Table 1 compares the opportunities presented by the food system to the current reality.
Connections and Conflicts Across Objectives in the Food System
The global food system has many interdependent and interconnected features, and therefore represents a complex policy space. But it also offers an opportunity to make multiple improvements at once.
Many of the goals outlined in Table 1 (across the areas of economy, health and environmental sustainability) are intimately linked. As a result, for some goals, it will be possible for policymakers to successfully tackle them in tandem. Other goals are in tension, meaning fixing one could make another worse.
The interconnected nature and complexity of the food system highlights the need to take a systems approach to food policy, where any intervention or innovation is evaluated across multiple elements. Food and agritech is relevant to health, nutrition, climate change, biodiversity, jobs and trade. We must avoid policy formulation that takes place in silos.
Typically, food systems have been evaluated based on yield. But a focus purely on productivity has come at the expense of the natural environment and human health.
For example, Figure 2 shows that an increase in the use of fertilisers and pesticides leads to increased production, food security and economic gain for farmers. However, if used irresponsibly these agricultural chemicals also damage soil health, contribute to climate change and have a negative impact on the nutritional value of foods. Climate change is and will continue to affect global food security. It also increases the likelihood of zoonotic diseases such as Covid-19 which – as we have seen – have disastrous impacts on human health and economies.
We also need to take a long-term view of the food system. Building a food system that provides strong economic growth and jobs now, but perhaps at the expense of environmental sustainability, will be useless when climate change threatens jobs, economic growth and ultimately food security in years to come.
Fortunately, whereas previous farming approaches – such as mechanisation and the use of fertilisers – have encouraged positive impacts on some aspects of the food system at the expense of others, new and emerging food and agriculture innovations can potentially create valuable co-benefits.
The next section discusses the opportunity presented by a range of innovations across the food system.
Innovation Is an Effective Route to Change
This section explores the opportunities and challenges stemming from the food-technology revolution. It considers how these technologies come together to deliver innovations that can have a positive impact on the environment, human health and the economy. It then discusses some key areas that warrant attention from policymakers, while recognising that progress will – to some extent – be driven by the private sector.
Although this paper has a global scope, it does not suggest that every innovation will be feasible, or is even desirable, on a global scale. Different countries have different natural environments, as well as different social, economic and political landscapes; some technologies will therefore be better suited than others to specific local contexts.
In developing countries and emerging economies, there is huge scope for change. Many of these countries have an opportunity to leapfrog the unsustainable methods of food production adopted in the Western world, and instead adopt revolutionary technologies in a relatively short period of time.
Despite the overwhelming set of challenges posed by our food system, the opportunity for change is strong. Innovations in food and agriculture provide some of the best and most feasible ways to solve many of the world’s toughest challenges at once.
Technology offers a chance to make our food system more resilient, more sustainable and better for both people and the planet. It’s also likely that scaling up food technologies will create new economic opportunities, while reducing negative economic and environmental externalities. Crucially, many of these innovations enable us to make dramatic improvements to the food system without asking individuals to make unrealistic sacrifices.
For example, precision farming and artificial intelligence (AI) solutions can maximise crop yields. Technologies can help livestock emit less methane, and plant-based and lab-grown foods enable us to produce protein products with far less strain on resources than conventional animal proteins. Vertical farms can help us produce more food with less land, less water and no harmful pesticides, and drone technology and satellites allow farmers to evaluate crop conditions and reduce reliance on harmful fertilisers. Breakthroughs in science and new seed and soil technologies can help to regenerate the soil, to capture more carbon and to improve the nutritional value of foods.
Progress across these innovation areas has been driven by the development of several digital and biological cross-cutting technologies, including but not limited to:
- Robotics and drones: Robotics refers to the design, manufacture, and use of robots for personal and commercial use. Drones are unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
- Nanotechnology: Science, engineering and technology conducted at the nanoscale, or the study and application of extremely small things.
- Synthetic biology: A field of science that involves redesigning organisms for useful purposes by engineering them to have new abilities. Researchers are harnessing the power of synthetic biology to solve problems in medicine, manufacturing and agriculture.
- Cellular agriculture: The production of agricultural products from cell cultures using biotechnology, tissue engineering, molecular biology and synthetic biology.
- Gene-editing technology: A group of technologies that give scientists the ability to edit an organism’s DNA. CRISPR is the most commonly used technology to edit genes.
- Artificial intelligence (AI): Computers that can recognise complex patterns, process information, draw conclusions and make recommendations.
- Computer vision: A field of AI that trains computers to interpret and understand the visual world.
- Blockchain: A secure, decentralised and transparent way of recording and sharing data, with no need to rely on third-part intermediaries.
- Machine learning: An application of artificial intelligence that provides systems with the ability to automatically learn and improve from experience without being explicitly programmed.
- Internet of Things (IoT): Describes the idea of everyday items – from medical wearables that monitor users’ physical condition to cars and tracking devices inserted into parcels – being connected to the internet and identifiable by other devices.
- 3D printing: Allows manufacturing businesses to print their own parts, with less tooling, at a lower cost and faster than traditional processes.
- Virtual reality (VR): Offers immersive digital experiences that simulate the real world.
The Food-Tech Revolution
Innovation in food systems should take place with three main policy goals in mind:
- Providing proper health and nutrition.
- Delivering economic opportunities and growth.
- Promoting environmental sustainability.
Policies or innovations that aim to address one aspect of the system are likely to produce impacts elsewhere. Going forward, any new solution or innovation must strive to balance these policy goals or, at the very least, not promote one at great expense to another.
In our analysis and goals framework, we have identified three main categories of innovation for the 21st-century food-tech revolution – enabled by the application of software and data – that collectively contribute to achieving these policy goals. They are:
- Innovations that can increase the quality of foods and farming. Whereas innovations during the green revolution enabled farmers to produce larger quantities of food with less land, new innovations enable us to increase the quality of foods and farming. Precision-farming technologies and advances in biotechnology mean we can reduce reliance on agrichemicals, improve soil quality and make foods more nutritious. This means we can still get more from our food system with fewer inputs, but with less strain on the world’s natural resources.
- Innovations that can improve methods for producing food. Completely novel methods of producing food – which take production away from farms and towards more controlled environments and labs – now exist. Innovations such as vertical farming and alternative proteins offer radical alternatives to traditional production methods, and hold significant opportunities for the environment, nutrition and health. Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt has gone as far to say that plant-based meat is the number-one tech trend that will significantly improve the world.
- Innovations that can reduce waste. Around one-third of all food produced gets lost or wasted each year. In sub-Saharan Africa, somewhere between 30 and 60 per cent of food that is grown never reaches the plates of consumers – a bleak statistic, especially when considering that so many people suffer from hunger and nutrient deficiencies. Mobile technologies and digital marketplaces can help connect actors across the system to reduce losses, while smart packaging and food-sensing technologies can help food stay fresher for longer. A circular-economy approach can ensure that by-products and waste from food systems can be repurposed and used in much higher-value products. The use of food waste as feedstock for anaerobic digestion is preferable to dumping waste in landfill, which results in methane emissions – one of the most damaging greenhouse gases driving climate change. However, this approach does not address the root cause of the problem – i.e. producing too much food in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Many of these innovations combine several of the cross-cutting technologies introduced above. Like Tesla – which didn’t invent the car, but instead improved and integrated existing technologies – startups in the food system are combining technologies to create impactful innovations. For example, vertical farms combine robotics, artificial intelligence and machine learning, the IoT, synthetic biology and gene editing.
Although this list is not exhaustive, it aims to illustrate the transformative potential of innovations in food and agriculture across the supply chain. It’s also important to note that although many of these innovations offer significant opportunities to improve the way we produce, distribute and consume food, many are in their early phases; in some cases further research is needed to identify their true potential, as well as any unintended consequences they may bring. No one technology presents a single perfect solution. The task for policymakers is to work out how to make the most suitable technologies work to achieve the greatest impact, while minimising any risks.
The following section highlights the strengths of each of these innovations to deliver against the three policy goals. It also considers any weaknesses as well as future opportunities and challenges they present.
Food and Agriculture Innovations: The Current State of Play
Building the best possible future food system is likely to require embracing some, if not all, of these innovations. But there are challenges to maximising their potential. The risks that come with scaling up these technologies must be addressed to enable positive impact across policy goals.
First and foremost, we must ensure that proper scientific research is conducted. And we must consider the impact that new technologies could have on our food system today, as well as the impact that they could have for years to come. There may be some unforeseen outcomes that we should attempt to anticipate now.
A Deep Dive Into Innovations: Opportunities and Challenges for Policy
Precision agriculture is an approach to farm management that uses technology to ensure that crops – at a subfield or even individual plant level – and soil receive exactly what they need for optimum health and productivity. For example, satellite imagery and sensors can help pinpoint the exact amount of fertiliser and water needed by a crop and link equipment that is designed to apply variable rates of inputs. Specialised agribots can tend to crops – taking care of weeding, fertilising and harvesting. This approach is made possible by the revolution in data available to the farmer.
The concept of precision agriculture has been around for a while, and although advances in technology present significant opportunities to come, technologies exist today that can deliver significant benefits across policy goals. Compared to other technologies, the trade-offs and unintended consequences are limited. Precision-farming techniques stand to benefit every farm in every country.
- Environment: More precise and accurate farming methods can lead to more accurate selection and breeding of varieties and species, and better application of inputs such as water, crop protection and fertilisers. In turn this can help to reduce inefficiencies and waste and save scarce resources. Precision-farming methods also offer an opportunity to regenerate the soil through reduced use of harmful chemicals and mechanisation. For example, robots allow re-aeration of the soil when they replace traditional heavy tractors, which reduces soil erosion.
- Health: Increasing evidence shows that declining soil health is also directly affecting human health, and as precision agriculture can help regenerate the soil, it can also help to increase the nutritional value of foods. Soil fertility is directly correlated with the nutrient content of food crops, and over the past 50 years there has been a significant decline in the amounts of protein, calcium, iron, riboflavin and vitamin C in conventionally grown fruits and vegetables. Humans require around 60 minerals for optimal health, but only eight minerals are available in a meaningful quantity in most of the food we eat today. Precision agriculture can also have positive impacts on health by contributing to both food security and safety as a result of increased productivity and using fewer harmful chemicals.
- Economy: Given the small amount that farmers receive for their products, many see cost-reduction and more intensive farming methods as the only way to run their businesses profitably. Using precision-farming technologies to guide farmers’ use of inputs and tools enables them to significantly increase productivity, reduce farm operating costs and save time, while also farming more sustainably. Nesta has predicted that precision-farming methods could increase the income of an average farm by 20 per cent in the UK. Small family-run farms in particular stand to benefit. Automation can also help with a declining and ageing workforce in the farming sector (the average age of a UK farmer is 58, while in Japan it is around 70).
The data challenge: Modern farms can collect a potentially huge amount of data. For example, sensors can measure many variables such as moisture levels in the soil, while weather data can be obtained from weather stations. Used effectively, data can offer valuable insights and help farmers make important decisions, such as when to spray fertiliser. The challenge is putting this data to good use by interpreting it properly and using it to create useful insights for farmers.
Here we point out three key factors holding back the effective use of data in farming: interoperability standards, ownership and security, and bandwidth constraints. Policymakers have a role to play in terms of setting and supporting appropriate data infrastructure and standards.
- Interoperability standards: To be most useful, data from multiple sources including public data, machine and sensor data, and other privately held data needs to be integrated. Yet too often smart farming systems and machinery lack interoperability. This means farmers have to manually input data, which in turn prevents valuable production gains.
- Ownership and security: Currently, a lack of transparency and clarity around issues such as data ownership and sovereignty, as well as privacy, means that many farmers are reluctant to share data, and countries seek to maintain local data hosting. Most of the useful farm data produced is currently in the hands of the private sector, meaning there is a risk companies could decide to take potentially market-distorting actions. The role of government is to make sure that data sharing happens in a way that increases efficiency and equity.
- Bandwidth constraints: Farming is currently a distinctly rural enterprise, and many rural areas still lack access to the internet and power. Taking digital farming mainstream will require more energy, faster networks, and strong and reliable internet signals.
Lack of knowledge and capital: Precision-farming methods are also often constrained by capital and the knowledge/skills required to operate the technology. Farmers require training to embrace even simple sensor, drone and satellite technologies. This is partly why uptake of precision-farming technologies has been low, despite the economic benefits for farmers. For example, in parts of Africa, lower rates of literacy have meant that technology has caught on more slowly.
Innovations in seeds, fertilisers and crop protection have multiple benefits. For example, gene editing presents new opportunities for the way crops are produced and improved – it has the potential to boost yields, increase disease resistance, improve taste and nutritional value, and tackle allergens. Unlike genetic modification, gene editing is based on a natural process.
Biological-based crop protection can eliminate pests while addressing the environmental challenges of using chemicals. Harnessing the plant and soil microbiome through technologies and smarter micro treatments could potentially revolutionise agriculture by increasing productivity, quality, and improving environmental outcomes.
However, food and agriculture protection technologies also raise some challenges and risks that policymakers should engage with now.
The challenges facing microbiome technologies: Microbes play a beneficial role in agricultural environments. For example, they can turn nitrogen from the air into soluble nitrates that can act as natural fertiliser. Advances in agricultural biotechnology are helping us to understand and exploit these microbes for beneficial outcomes. We may, for example, be able to reduce the use of chemicals in farming and increase sustainable production. Indigo Ag’s technology identifies beneficial microbes and combines them to develop seed treaters. This means crops are better protected and can withstand harsh environments.
However, although there has been an enormous leap in microbiome research – enabled by rapid-sequencing technologies – and some of this has resulted in practical innovations, research is still at an early stage.
New approaches being explored include managing environmental conditions to promote microbiome diversity, using synthetic biology to design microbiomes with a particular function, and developing diagnostics, predictive models and biomarkers with applications like monitoring the health of water sources and soil. Harnessing the growing body of knowledge on microbiomes is expected to generate new ways to revolutionise agriculture, such as increasing nutrient availability and improving soil structure. However, microbiomes are extremely complicated, and complex interactions occur between and within microbiomes and their hosts and environments. As a result, limited research has been translated into new ideas and practical solutions for farmers. A key challenge for research is to understand the communication molecules used by plants or microbes. There is also a need for more progress in the methods used to analyse ecological conditions.
There have been some moves in the right direction by governments. In 2016, the White House launched the US microbiome initiative to enhance innovation and commercialisation, of which crop and soil microbiomes are a core component. The EU Commission launched the Bioeconomy Forum in 2016, and harnessing microbiomes for food and nutritional security is a key programme topic.
Confronting the risks of gene editing: Gene editing involves making slight changes to a plant’s existing genes and is considered by many scientists to be as safe as traditional plant-breeding techniques. CRISPR is one type of gene-editing technology that holds great potential. Gene editing through CRISPR can help increase yield, improve the nutritional value of crops and increase resilience to extreme weather patterns.
Gene editing differs from genetic modification (GM), which has previously received backlash from consumers. It is widely accepted that gene editing through CRISPR is cheaper, faster, simpler and safer than GM technology. Table 4 provides a comparison of the two techniques.
However, any technology that interferes with nature is not completely immune from unintended consequences, and gene editing has raised environmental, human health and ethical concerns. Some researchers claim that new genetic-engineering techniques such as CRISPR could cause “genetic havoc”.
As a result, some experts have argued that gene editing in the US has escaped necessary regulation. On the other hand, the EU’s high court ruled that gene-edited plants should be regulated in the same way as GMOs were in 2018, causing confusion among many plant scientists. But the EU’s new Farm to Fork Strategy acknowledges that new biotechnologies may play a role in increasing sustainability and states that, in response to requests from member states, the Commission will look into the benefits of new genomic techniques.
Despite all this, there are now over a million geneticists worldwide working with CRISPR technology, and it’s essential that the right kind of regulation keeps pace with developments in the technology. Rather than updating or adapting existing, outdated regulations, regulators should consider starting fresh to design regulation that is truly fit for 21st-century technologies like gene editing.
Conclusion: Policy Questions to Address
New and emerging food and agriculture technologies offer the opportunity to make the world a significantly better place, and a radically different vision for our food system is now much closer to becoming a reality. However, despite the promise of these innovations, there are several challenges that must be addressed for them to scale up responsibly. Our future food system therefore demands a new set of answers to a new set of questions.
What Will It Take to Make These Technologies Work for Everyone, Everywhere?
- How do we make the unit economics of food technologies work globally – not just in California or the UAE?
Potentially revolutionary innovations like vertical farming are not yet economically feasible on a large scale. Furthermore, most vertical farms that currently exist are in high-income countries. But challenges in our food system are global, and we need global solutions. If we are going to make these technologies work for everyone, we need to work out what it will take to make the unit economics work everywhere. It’s likely that existing technologies and components will need to fall in price and new technologies will need to be developed.
It’s also likely that new funding models will need to be considered. It’s possible that the venture-capital model won’t be sufficient to fund vertical farming on a large scale. To create a vertical farm which can produce enough food to feed large populations will require substantial capital expenditure. It raises an infrastructure question as much as a funding question, and governments are likely to need to play a major role.
Additionally, millions of people around the world currently grow, fish or hunt food to feed their own families. It’s far from clear how these people will get the cash to buy food produced in labs or on vertical farms.
- What is the role for government vs. the private sector to drive food tech to scale?
It’s likely that market forces will enable some technologies to thrive, while others will require government intervention to have a positive impact on the world. For example, investment in alternative proteins has grown massively in the past decade. But the sector still only holds a small market share compared to the traditional meat industry. As a result, the Good Food Institute has argued for public funding to advance alternative protein research. Governments already spend around half a trillion dollars every year supporting agriculture and the food system, yet this investment is not producing desirable outcomes.
Our initial analysis suggests that scaling up food technologies necessitates far more government intervention than already exists. Governments need to work out where intervention may be necessary to encourage innovation, and how to create an enabling environment or “innovation ecosystem” so the private sector can thrive.
The right regulatory system will also be key, as will a strong relationship between the public and private sectors.
- How can we help farmers adopt these technologies, and make technologies more attractive to consumers?
Many of these technologies require both capital investment and training to use them effectively. This means that, when combined with cultural inertia and sometimes low trust and awareness in technology from farmers, uptake of technologies that already exist can be low. For example, the uptake of precision-farming technologies globally is still fairly low. Governments must consider the kinds of interventions required to encourage farmers to use effective technologies that already exist. This may include better information and demonstration of the value of technologies, alongside financial support.
Similarly, there remains some consumer scepticism around many technologies like novel foods. Aside from making these products competitive in convenience, price and taste, there may be other interventions we can make to make them more attractive to consumers, like increasing education and dialogue around these technologies, therefore building trust and acceptance.
- How might employment be affected? How can we make sure we create more winners than losers?
Farming is a sector that largely takes place in rural communities. The agricultural sector employs more than 25 per cent of the world’s working population. In the developing world four-fifths of food is produced by smallholder farmers. Innovations such as precision farming, alternative proteins and vertical farming are likely to change the nature of food production and therefore change the nature of work. For example, to compete with industrial agriculture, vertical farming will need to be better at reducing the need for human labour, which essentially means technology will have to replace human jobs. We need to work out how to make this transition as smooth as possible so people do not lose out.
There’s also a possibility that some innovations open up the wealth gap. Vertical farming, for example, has no export model, meaning countries with vertical farms may no longer import crops or vegetables from other countries.
The agricultural revolution will also create new jobs and will necessitate new types of skills. Supporting the development of new skills will be a central task for governments wanting to support the food-technology revolution.
- Which technologies should be prioritised? Can and should multiple technologies work simultaneously, or will some compete with others?
We need to ask ourselves what we want our future food system to look like. Is it desirable to grow most of our food in cities in vertical farms, where it is to be eaten, or should traditional farms – made more efficient with precision farming – still dominate? Will these approaches compete in our future food system? And therefore, which ones should governments support? Do we want all our meat to be grown in labs in the future, and therefore is there any role for technologies that improve the efficiency of livestock farming? Henry Dimbleby writes in Part 1 of England’s National Food Strategy: “It seems to me that our only real hope of creating a sustainable food system lies in diversity … if one part of the system gets struck by disaster, the others can pick up the slack.” Indeed, the answer may well be that an ideal future food system includes a mixture of different innovations and methods. It’s also likely that many innovations will complement each other to create an even greater positive impact than they could alone. Our analysis suggests that vertical farms and alternative proteins have the potential to be some of the most transformative innovations.
These questions provide a starting point for any government that wants to grasp the opportunities presented by innovations in the food industry.
Given the impact of our current food system on our health, the environment and our economies, and the positive potential of these food technologies to address each of these factors, embracing new innovations in our food system could be the single-most effective thing we can do to build a better future. This paper should provide hope that this future is not beyond our reach.
Technology is already transforming every aspect of the world we live in; like every other part of our economies and societies, technology will change the way we produce and consume food. But it’s up to governments to set the direction and pace of this change. Governments should strive to get ahead and start to build the markets of the future.
We will explore some of the issues and questions laid out in this paper over the coming months, to better understand how to responsibly scale up transformative food technologies, and create a food system that works for everyone, everywhere.
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