A new study published in the journal Nature Food investigated 75 emerging technologies that can help radically transform food systems by taking action on the climate crisis, reducing environmental impact, reducing poverty, and providing healthy food.
The pipeline of emerging technologies spans the food value chain, from production and processing to consumption and waste management.
Some of the technologies presented in the study are already familiar to the many, such as artificial meats, 3D printing, drones, “intelligent” materials, and vertical agriculture. Others require a bigger stretch of the imagination: nitrogen-fixing cereals that don’t need fertilizer, spreadable biodegradable polymers that conserve soil moisture, feed for livestock produced from human sewage.
The study’s authors – the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) – acknowledge there will be tradeoffs.
And not only for the environment and human health — genetic modification of crops is already hotly debated; there is also the risk that unequal access to costly technologies across the globe could increase inequality.
Transparency will be key to safeguarding against unintended negative social and environmental impacts, and appropriate policies and regulations are needed to ensure benefits are distributed fairly. Building the social trust necessary for new technologies to take flight will be the foundation of transformative change, say the 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.
“As many tech entrepreneurs see clearly, successful innovation requires a high failure rate. And with a challenge this big and this complex, we will need to attack from all sides. So while many of these technologies could yet fail, investment in their development and testing is crucial to the future of our food systems,” said Mario Herrero, lead author and Chief Research Scientist at CSIRO.