Food system reconfiguration: What’s the role of innovation?

By Philip Thornton – Clim-Eat’s Research and Innovation Strategist

Our food systems are increasingly under the cosh. There is broad agreement that, as currently configured, they pose considerable threats to our ability to operate within a safe planetary space. But transforming them isn’t easy, partly because there are a host of other issues that also need attention: the projections about the dire effects of climate change, the recent pandemic won’t be the last one we face, and we are squarely in the midst of global economic, security and humanitarian crises too.

According to the 2022 State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI) report, around 2.3 billion people – close to 30% of the world’s population – were moderately or severely food insecure in 2021. The drivers of food system malfunction are intensifying rapidly; at times the goal of Zero Hunger by 2030 seems a rapidly vanishing chimera.

There are myriad recent reports on what needs to be done, all with different angles, agendas and takes on this most fundamental challenge. But all agree on one thing: food system innovation – technical, financial, socio-political, economic, and institutional – will be absolutely critical if we are to get out of this mess. If we manage it, it won’t be down to one Great Fix but rather a multitude of different innovations addressing different parts of the food system, some large and disruptive, others incremental tweaks.

There’s no doubt that reconfiguring food systems poses huge challenges. The food sector is different in several key respects compared with other sectors. For one thing, culture, society and social licence play a massive role, given the existential importance of food to everyone on the planet. Further, the sector is dependent on biological systems that have other key functions too, so regulation and safeguarding are of critical importance. And the sector provides livelihoods and food security directly and indirectly for large numbers of poor people, particularly in lower- and middle-income countries, where the sector often has limited capacity to adapt. Factors such as these can militate against rapid, radical change in the food sector, which means that many separate things need to happen very quickly if we are to see measurable progress.

Fortunately, there are many examples of food system innovations that, once implemented alone or in combination, could contribute shifts in key areas of the food system (production, storage, processing, consumption) towards more healthy, sustainable and equitable outcomes (see here, here and here). Many of these are incremental changes; but there are a few that, if widely adopted, could be real game changers. Here are just three examples.

Green ammonia: We produce 180 Mt of ammonia every year, 80% of which is used as fertiliser. It’s a highly energy-intensive production process and results in nearly 2% of global carbon dioxide emissions. But it is now possible to produce ammonia without using fossil fuels and using renewable energy sources. Water electrolysis is used to provide a hydrogen supply, and nitrogen is extracted from the air. Nitrogen and hydrogen are combined via the Haber-Bosch process to make fertiliser ammonia. Moreover, this “green” ammonia is increasingly being seen as a carbon-free fuel for the future: when burned, it reverts to nitrogen and water and produces no carbon dioxide emissions. It’s being widely touted as a future fuel for the shipping industry and electric vehicle charging, for example, as well as for fertiliser nitrogen. Europe’s first commercial-scale green ammonia facility came online in May 2022, and the industry is set for massive expansion globally in the coming years.

Single-cell protein: Various single-cell proteins are already being used as human food, such as mycoproteins (fungus-based), while others are in the pipeline. Many have substantial benefits for the climate and the environment, compared with protein from some livestock species and systems. There is considerable interest in single-cell proteins that can be made by extracting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and combining it with water, nutrients and vitamins. This can be done inside a bioreactor using electricity generated from renewable sources to convert water to hydrogen gas. Hydrogen-oxidizing bacteria are then used to produce a powder that is about 65% protein, similar to soy protein, and can be added to a wide range of food products. Just recently, the Singapore Food Agency approved the use of one such protein for human consumption, with commercial production due to start in 2024. The production and consumption of this kind of single-cell protein at scale could have a huge impact on food production – it’s essentially carbon neutral, and could reduce the environmental footprint of agricultural production by freeing up land, reducing water use and increasing landscape biodiversity, for example.

New models for public AR4D: the need for food system reconfiguration has sparked a lot of recent thinking about how public agricultural research for development (A4RD) could become more effective and efficient. The AR4D agenda is now considerably more wide-ranging and complex than it was 50 years ago, as it now needs to involve multi- and transdisciplinary science approaches as well as taking account of cross-sectoral interests such as agriculture, food, health, energy and infrastructure. New and broadened approaches imply new tools and methods, new partnerships, new funding and incentive arrangements, and new ways to frame innovation processes themselves. And even new ways of doing business, such as utilising swarm intelligence, a collective way of working with many decentralised, self-organised teams that can move quickly in a coordinated manner in pursuit of an overarching shared vision. Research based on such ideas could involve novel features such as multi-stakeholder teams that include social movements and consumer organisations to amplify consumer demand, and “living labs” for testing new innovations with rapid iteration in the R&D cycle, in which the lessons of both success and failure are quickly learnt and built on.

As for any potential game changers, these three examples will need an enabling environment if they are to be taken up widely: blended finance for new green ammonia start-ups, modifications to national health and safety regulations for single-cell protein production, and new funding models and incentive systems for public AR4D, for instance.

History and experience show clearly that the two great spurs to innovation are crises and very short deadlines. Food systems are in crisis, and we need to be well on the way to fixing them by the end of the decade. There’s no time to lose.


Philip Thornton is Clim-Eat’s Research & Innovation Strategist. Before joining Clim-Eat, Philip was the Flagship Leader for Policies and Priorities for Climate Smart Agriculture for the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), and a Principal Scientist at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Nairobi, Kenya. He has 38 years’ experience in agricultural research for development. He is a member of several journal editorial boards and a lead author for Working Group II of the IPCC’s AR6 assessment round, to be published in 2022. Philip is an Honorary Professor in the School of Geosciences, The University of Edinburgh, and listed as the 39th most influential climate change scientist on Reuters Hot List.



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