Will innovation be the true game-changer of food systems transformation?

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How innovations, which have been recognized to contribute to the current resource-intensive, wasteful and fossil fuel-based paradigm of mass production and mass consumption which we live in and feed from, could, suddenly become the solution that leads us to food system sustainability?

While major recent global events (including COVID-19, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, or the current skyrocketing inflation) have turned our attention to the question of the resilience of our food systems, the UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) that took place a bit more than one year ago was resolutely (and correctly) focusing on the question of the transformation of those food systems. If there is indeed one area of consensus amongst all experts (those who were invited to the UNFSS and those who were not given the opportunity to speak there), it is that our food systems, as they operate nowadays, are not sustainable and that “nothing less than a Great Food Transformation” is required to fix this.

This is, however, as far as the consensus goes. How this great transformation should take place and who should be in the driving seat is not so clear. Part of the problem, it seems, is that, like for many other big societal challenges (energy transition, universal healthcare), ideology, politics and corporate or individual interests are brought into the equation and blur the discussion. As a consequence, in the eyes of many policymakers, the situation looks complex, crammed with a lot of uncertainty, very little data to rely on, and some apparent painful and challenging trade-offs to address. In sum, the pathways towards this food system Great Transformation does not necessary appear straightforward.

In those conditions, there is a tendency to turn to quick solutions, magic bullets and other forms of panaceas that hold the promise to fix the problem easily and painlessly. Innovation is certainly one of those “promises.” In the view of the UNFSS, but also many other international institutions, e.g. World Economic Forum, etc., innovation is presented as one of those “levers of change” that is to become “a significant enabling factor for food systems transformation.” What innovation refers to for those institutions is, however, much vaguer: The UNFSS defines innovations as “business models, scientific research, technological advances and social change (…) [including] data and digital, scientific and technological, national and regional innovation ecosystems, as well as societal and institutional innovation models, including traditional and Indigenous knowledge.” With such an all-embracing definition, it is not surprising that the concept is presented (and received) as the multi-potent factor that will reverse the tide and make our food systems suddenly sustainable…

Some would argue however that this generic and wide-ranging definition of innovation is not really helping as, de facto, it contributes to create or to maintain some levels of unclarity and fuzziness that are likely to slow down or even to hamper the identification of the tangible entry-points and the concrete actions that are urgently needed to put our food system (back) on the path of sustainability. And a good illustration of this is the great difficulty which individual countries are currently struggling with to transform the rhetoric of the UNFSS into real changes at country level.

In a recent analysis published in World Development, policy analyst Chris Béné also discusses the role that innovation may – or may not – play in the case of food systems. He argues in particular that innovations may not be the game-changer that many claim they are. But, to substantiate his argument, he does not rely on the issue discussed just above.

Instead, he bases his argument on empirical facts. He points out that food systems as we observe them today – with their ability to feed 8 billion people, but also their high level of unhealthy and environmentally detrimental products, their unsustainable levels of food waste and losses, or their unacceptable level of human abuse and exploitation (food production is the economic sector with the highest prevalence of forced and child labor) – are in fact the very result of past and recent innovations.

Thus, his question: are we correct to assume that future innovations will be different from past innovations if they are driven by the same process? His answer is: No.

Indeed, the very reason for the current unsustainability of our food systems, he explains, is the fact that, at its very core, innovation is driven by profitability, not by sustainability. This means that while some of these innovations may eventually contribute to improve the sustainability of our food systems, many others – like the one on the picture to the right – will continue to inundate the market even though they are neither healthy nor environmentally friendly. The problem is that at present, the condition for an innovation to penetrate and remain on the market, is its economic viability, not its potential for sustainability. In Béné’s view, unless this process is altered and market priorities are more systematically re-aligned with sustainability through intended policies, innovations will continue to create and maintain a (food) system that is not delivering the Great Transformation that is urgently required to reach sustainability.


Header image: Green peas in a pod by Rachael Gorjestani from Unsplash.

Second image: Doughnuts by Slashio Photography from Unsplash. 

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