Davos 2018: Technology Can Help Transform Our Food Systems -- Just In Time

The technologies behind these scenarios are already being developed, and they’re just two examples of the ways in which technology innovations have the potential to revolutionize our food systems in coming years – changing the way food is both produced and consumed.

This will change the life of the average consumer by helping people to save time, get healthy and live their values through their food choices – having much greater efficiency, convenience, and knowledge about the nutritional value, sustainability and other aspects of the food they consume. Innovations can also have a dramatic effect on the way food is produced – reducing the environmental impacts of agriculture on forests, water and climate, while reducing waste and loss along the value chain.

These improvements are urgently needed in a food system that is failing to provide adequate nutrition to nearly half the world’s population. The rise of Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies presents significant opportunities to transform food systems, enabling us to sustainably meet the dietary needs of 9 billion people by 2050.

Yet despite this potential, food systems are decades behind other sectors in adopting technology innovations. A new World Economic Forum report launched this week in Davos, “Innovation with a Purpose: The role of technology innovation in accelerating food systems transformation,” found that technology startups related to food systems are attracting a fraction of the capital of those in the health sector. Since 2010, the healthcare sector attracted $145 billion in investments in 18,000 start-ups, while the food sector attracted $14 billion for just over 1,000 startups.

We believe that food system innovation is poised to be the next big opportunity for disruption – benefiting consumers, farmers, innovators and investors. The report spotlights 12 emerging technology innovations — the ‘Transformative Twelve’ — that have the potential to drive rapid progress in the sustainability, inclusivity, efficiency and health impacts of food systems. Some of these technologies are more mature than others, some might be more applicable towards developed or developing countries. In all cases, scaling these technologies could deliver significant positive impact and help towards the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 — the magnitude of which has been estimated in the report.

To illustrate a few examples of these estimated impacts, if consumers chose to replace 10-15% of meat with alternative proteins by 2030, 5-10% of total land use for agriculture could be liberated for other uses – an area of land larger than Germany. In terms of potential health impacts, if 10-15% of the overweight population utilized nutrigenetics for personalized nutrition, this could reduce the number of overweight people by up to 55 million. This is greater than the entire population of Colombia. If 70-90% of farmers in developing countries used mobile service applications by 2030, mobile service delivery could put financial services, agricultural information, supply chain information, and market access right at a farmer’s fingertips, generating up to $200 billion in increased income for farmers. If 15-25% of all farmers adopted precision agriculture for input and water use optimization by 2030, freshwater withdrawals for agriculture could be reduced by 2-5%. This volume of water is larger than the United States’ Lake Tahoe.

The report found that current trends in global investment do not yet reflect the potential for disruption in demand-side innovations  innovations which target and impact consumers  as well as in developing countries. These gaps demonstrate an opportunity to accelerate innovation investment and activity order to achieve an aspirational and inclusive future.

The potential benefits are enormous  but not all of them can be achieved through a “business as usual” approach. While some may develop and scale through market forces, others may require concerted efforts from all stakeholders to realize their benefits to people and the planet. The rapid evolution of technologies also requires continuous innovation and adaptation, which countries can enable by developing “innovation ecosystems” to power local solutions and economic benefits.

Technology innovations for food systems are still under-recognized, but they may be the next big thing in consumers’ grocery basket.

Sarita Nayyar is the Chief Operating Officer of the World Economic Forum LLC. Sunil Sanghvi is a Senior Partner in the Global Agriculture Practice at McKinsey & Company.

This blog was written as part of a Davos series of the World Economic Forum, for publication during its Annual Meeting in the Swiss town of Davos, 23-26 January 2018.