Tech innovation not silver bullet for addressing climate change or delivering sustainable food systems, says Cornell-led report

WAGENINGEN, THE NETHERLANDS – We must combine social and technological innovation to make the world’s agri-food systems healthy, equitable, resilient and sustainable, according to a new Expert Panel report from the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability, published by Nature Sustainability in collaboration with its sibling journal, Nature Food

The Expert Panel Report brought together 20 business, government, non-profit and scientific experts from around the world to assess research linking agri-food systems, technological and institutional innovations, and society’s future needs. 

The panel has outlined seven major recommendations in a 170-plus-page report, with its main recommendation revolving around the combination of social change with technological innovation. 

While technological and institutional innovations in agri-food systems over the past century have brought dramatic advances in human well-being worldwide, these gains increasingly appear unsustainable due to massive, adverse spillover effects on climate, natural environment, public health and nutrition, and social justice. 

To deflect future world food crises created by climate change and growing consumer demand, the Expert Panel created a roadmap for global agricultural and food systems innovation, reform and sustainability. 

As is increasingly widely recognized, the costs that farmers and downstream value chain actors incur and the prices consumers pay understate foods’ true costs to society once one accounts for adverse environmental, health, and social spillover effects.

Inevitable demographic, economic, and climate change in the coming decades will catastrophically aggravate these problems under business-as-usual scenarios. Innovations will be needed to facilitate concerted, coordinated efforts to transition to more healthy, equitable, resilient, and sustainable agri-food systems. 

The panel consisted of experts who come from many different continents and who span a wide range of disciplines and organizations—from industry and universities to social movements, governments, philanthropies, institutional and venture capital investors, and multilateral agencies.

The panel synthesized the best current science to describe the present state of the world’s agri-food systems and key external drivers of its changes over the next 25–50 years, as well as tease out key lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic experience this year.

Chris Barrett, the Stephen B. and Janice G. Ashley Professor in Cornell’s Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, who leads the project, said: 

“By any measure, our world’s food systems are phenomenally productive, responsive and adaptable, as we can now feed almost 5 billion in a healthy way,”

“But that means nearly 3 billion cannot afford a healthy diet. And with inevitable population growth, income growth and the climate change that’s already baked into the food system, our current agricultural gains and methods are not sustainable,” said Barrett.

“Globally, we can’t continue on this path without destroying the planet and imperilling billions of people.” 

Philip Thornton, Flagship Programme Leader at the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), was one of the global group of researchers who contributed to the report, focusing on sustainable animal and plant production systems and the impact of COVID-19. He said:

“This report shows unequivocally that we have no hope of addressing climate change without radically changing the way animals and plants are produced to feed a rapidly growing global population.”

“The gains we’ve made over the last decades in eking out more food production with less inputs are diminishing. Our agricultural sectors – and the global food systems they support – are now far too dependent on manufactured and mined fertilizers that are used far less efficiently than they should.”

“The result is environmental degradation, severe risks to our health and negative social and economic impacts on the 1.3 billion people working in the often-perilous agricultural sector.”

“Genetic studies and innovative technology will help – but they are not magic bullets. Nature has an incredible intrinsic ability to renew itself, to recycle the materials it needs to thrive. We’re just not tapping into that to solve the climate and nutrition problems we face.” 

“We need all of us – consumers, governments, the private sector, investors and even smallholder farmers in remote villages – to embrace a much more diverse approach to food production and consumption, tailoring policy and business practices for unique landscapes.” 

“In this sense, the changes we need in food and farming policy are similar to the compelling ideas emerging from the circular economy movement. That means producers, distributors and consumers must be engaged, informed and willing to support the needed transitions with investment and necessary behavioural changes.” 

“The UK hosts the COP26 climate summit next year to broker new international commitments on tackling climate change. Around the same time, the UN will host a major summit on Food Systems. The coming year is a perfect opportunity for the UK to build on its new sustainable farming strategy, by putting more sustainable food systems on the global agenda.”  

Further information 

The report, “Socio-Technical Innovation Bundles for Agri-Food Systems” was funded by the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability and was published Dec. 10 on the Nature Sustainability website, in collaboration with its sibling journal, Nature Food

The Expert Panel website can be found here: 

For further information, please contact:

Rhys Bucknall-Williams
+31 642 51 43 55