How inclusive innovation could transform food systems – and help to end world hunger

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Kate Whiting, Senior Writer, Formative Content


  • Two years of the COVID-19 pandemic and now the invasion of Ukraine have disrupted global food systems.
  • The World Economic Forum and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization have published a roadmap to help countries accelerate inclusive food systems innovation.
  • There is a $15.2 billion funding gap for food system innovation that could support ending hunger, keeping emissions within 2°C and reducing water use by 10%.
  • The roadmap recommends establishing a Global Coalition for Digital Food Systems Innovation, a network of Food Innovation Hubs as well as helping farmers invest in sustainable food practices through the 100 Million Farmers platform.

By 2030, it’s estimated the world will be home to 8.5 billion people. By then, the United Nations (UN) hopes to have ended world hunger, achieved food security and improved nutrition – all while ensuring farming practices are sustainable.

It’s a lofty ambition, made more challenging by the fact that two years of the COVID-19 pandemic and now the Ukraine invasion by Russia have disrupted global food systems.

But there is hope that progress towards the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals can be made through collaboration and inclusive innovation.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the current Ukraine crisis have highlighted the need to support the resiliency of food systems to a series of fast-moving shocks that is informed by data.

In January, the World Economic, in partnership with the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), published a roadmap to help countries accelerate and scale inclusive innovation to meet the needs of all stakeholders in the food system and ensure no one is left behind.

It follows the UN’s Food Systems Summit, held in September 2021, in which innovation was recognized as one of the keys to enabling food systems transformation.

The scale of the food systems challenge

In 2020, the pandemic caused an increase in world hunger, with as many as 811 million people going hungry globally, according to the FAO and Forum’s white paper Transforming Food Systems: Pathways for Country-led Innovation.

More than 3 billion people cannot afford a healthy diet, and more than 1.5 billion people cannot afford a diet with even the minimum level of essential nutrients.

There’s also a gender disparity in terms of food insecurity – with women 10% more likely than men to be moderately or severely food insecure.

And while people don’t have enough to eat, food systems are gradually contributing to climate change, emitting up to one-third of global greenhouse gases.

Globally they contribute to 80% of tropical deforestation and are a main driver of soil degradation and desertification, water scarcity and biodiversity decline.

A chart showing the number of undernourished people in the world.
How the number of undernourished people has risen during the pandemic. Image: UN Food and Agriculture Organization

The case for food systems innovation

At the Food Systems Summit, UN Secretary-General António Guterres created an Innovation Lever of Change, co-chaired by the Forum and humanitarian aid organization Mercy Corps, to bring together the public, private and social sectors on innovation.

The Innovation Lever, whose work has led to the white paper, called for countries to set a target to invest 1% of their food system-related GDP in innovation.

Over the next 10 years, investing in innovation could end hunger, significantly cut global emissions and generate more than $1 trillion in economic returns, the white paper says.

Currently only 7% of the annual funding for agricultural innovation for the Global South contains sustainability goals. If that figure were 50%, it could contribute an additional $30 billion towards transforming food systems, according to the white paper.

At the same time, there is a $15.2 billion funding gap for food system innovation that could support ending hunger, keeping emissions within 2°C and reducing water use by 10%.

Improving soil management techniques could offset and sequester about 20% of total annual emissions.

By 2030, enhanced connectivity in agriculture could add more than $500 billion to global gross domestic product, according to McKinsey research.

Meanwhile, biological innovation in the fields of agriculture, aquaculture and food production could generate economic returns of up to $1.2 trillion over the next 10-20 years, according to the white paper.

Food

What is the World Economic Forum doing to help ensure global food security?

Two billion people in the world currently suffer from malnutrition and according to some estimates, we need 60% more food to feed the global population by 2050. Yet the agricultural sector is ill-equipped to meet this demand: 700 million of its workers currently live in poverty, and it is already responsible for 70% of the world’s water consumption and 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

New technologies could help our food systems become more sustainable and efficient, but unfortunately the agricultural sector has fallen behind other sectors in terms of technology adoption.

Launched in 2018, the Forum’s Innovation with a Purpose Platform is a large-scale partnership that facilitates the adoption of new technologies and other innovations to transform the way we produce, distribute and consume our food.

With research, increasing investments in new agriculture technologies and the integration of local and regional initiatives aimed at enhancing food security, the platform is working with over 50 partner institutions and 1,000 leaders around the world to leverage emerging technologies to make our food systems more sustainable, inclusive and efficient.

Learn more about Innovation with a Purpose’s impact and contact us to see how you can get involved.

Inclusive innovation

The FAO and Forum’s roadmap sets out principles and actions to accelerate innovation, firmly embedded in the need to be holistic and inclusive.

The seven core principles include innovating in a way that:

  • Protects and respects the right of all stakeholders, particularly the most vulnerable and those on the cusp, to participate fairly in decision-making about food systems
  • Has positive social and environmental impacts by adopting nature-positive and sustainable approaches while ensuring equitable livelihoods
  • Ethically develops digital tools, technologies and data platforms that include last-mile solutions for farmers and all consumers in food systems.
An infographic showing innovation areas.
4 people-centred innovation areas for food systems transformation Image: World Economic Forum

The roadmap identifies four people-centred areas for innovation and recommends a list of actions for each one:

Promoting national and regional innovation ecosystems

This includes developing strategies to encourage collaboration between government departments, reviewing regulation that prevents the scaling up of agricultural innovation, and creating multi-stakeholder Food Innovation Hubs to link universities, NGOs, (local) governments, start-ups, mid to large companies and venture capital.

Among the countries already leading the way with food hubs are Viet Nam – which aims to make the whole journey from farm to plate sustainable – and the Netherlands, which is hosting the Food Innovation Hubs’ Global Coordinating Secretariat.

Encouraging societal and institutional innovations

With an emphasis on promoting collaboration and inclusivity, this includes developing common and agreed-upon food-related policies that protect the rights of all stakeholders – from small-scale producers and community-based organizations to women and indigenous peoples.

Employing and supporting new and existing knowledge and technology

The Innovation Lever identified the 100 Million Farmers platform as a way to incentivize farmers and enable consumers to put climate, nature and resilience at the core of the food economy to boost nature-positive production, advance equitable livelihoods and build resilience to vulnerabilities, shock and stress. You can read more about the platform’s work here.

Improving and integrating data and digital systems

This includes making sure data and digital systems are aligned, agile and interoperable and can support a climate-smart and inclusive food systems transformation.

The Innovation Lever identified the Global Coalition for Digital Food Systems made up of three delivery platforms (One Map, Data and Digital Marketplace Playbook and Digital Data Cornucopia), as a coalition with the capability to support countries to employ data in inclusive and responsible ways, to create visible opportunities within food systems.

The Forum, the Food Action Alliance and partners are holding a virtual meeting Bold Actions for Food – Regional and Country Flagships to drive action on food systems change.

In the Opening Plenary, leaders will discuss how to raise ambitions and scale leadership action towards COP27, and explore strategies for realizing shared goals by 2030.

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