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EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: Food systems at a crossroads: The innovation opportunity to define a new food future

Kavita Prakash-Mani

23 Jan 2018

Food production is dependent on nature for the resources it needs. However, it is singularly depleting the very same resources.

As world leaders convene in Davos this week for the World Economic Forum, one of the key focuses is the role of technology and cooperation in solving the world’s biggest problems. In this piece Kavita Prakash-Mani, leader of WWF’s global Food Practice decodes what this means for food systems and outlines how innovation can define a new food future.

Late last year, headlines were made when growing popularity drove avocado prices up by 75 per cent. As sushi has become a staple in the developed world, the price of bluefin tuna has also soared – in the first auction of the year at Tokyo fish market, a single fish was sold for $323,000. In 2013, the record price of $1.76 million was set. Next month, during Lunar New Year, many Asian families will celebrate by eating shark’s fin soup, each bowl costing more than $100.

Naturally, rising demand increases price. But in the case of food choices, it has a much more detrimental impact than to the health of our bank accounts – it increases biodiversity loss.

It is estimated that the Pacific bluefin tuna population has plummeted by 97 per cent from pre-1950s levels. A third of all shark species are at risk of extinction. Avocados, for which the production of one kilogram requires 600 litres of water, are draining aquifers in California and putting the whole ecosystem under strain.

Food production is dependent on nature for the resources it needs. However, it is singularly depleting the very same resources. It uses 70 per cent of the world’s water and 40 per cent of land, accounts for 25 per cent of greenhouse gas emission, and is the leading cause of deforestation and habitat loss. And we will need to produce even more to feed growing populations and meet people’s food preferences.

The choices made at all stages of the food value chain – including production, distribution and consumption points – are incredibly important, requiring all the players in the chain and the broader food system to work together. Innovation in technology, business models, and collaboration will help.

First of all, bringing transparency to the full value chain helps to track the food we eat, ensure its safety and sustainability, and protect species and habitats. Blockchains helps. WWF is pioneering the use of blockchains to track tuna in Fiji from when it is caught to reaching the distributor and is working to track the whole chain from bait to plate.

Meanwhile, more direct engagement at landscape level is helping define sustainable production methods, raise yields without converting more habitats to farmlands, and rewarding farmers for conservation. Use of digital technology is helping – whether it be for spatial planning, precision agriculture, provision of knowledge and finance, creating direct links to markets, increasing efficiency or reducing food loss and waste. Landscape approaches are working in enlightened jurisdictions to transform whole provinces. For instance, in Sabah, where we see commitment to sustainable palm oil production by 2025.

An example of leadership by companies is their commitment to protecting the Cerrado, the world’s most biodiverse savannah. It is home to 5 per cent of the world’s biodiversity, including over 800 bird species and 1,100 plant species, and yet  the agricultural area of the Cerrado expanded by 87 per cent between 2000 and 2014, through clearing of forests and vegetation, largely due to soybean production. Though consumers do not eat large amounts of soy directly it is one of the most commonly used livestock feeds.

In direct response, the Cerrado Manifesto was developed and signed by nearly 50 Brazilian and international NGOs, including WWF, calling for the private sector to immediately commit to eliminating deforestation and conversion of native vegetation.

To date, 61 of the world’s biggest food companies – including Ahold Delhaize, McDonalds, Tesco, Unilever and Walmart – have committed to working with local and international stakeholders to halt deforestation and native vegetation loss in the Cerrado, and will call on other supply chain actors, government, investors and civil society to share their goal.

In addition, efforts are now being made to find alternates feed sources to replace soybean protein or even fish meal and oil from wild caught fish. For instance, Ynsect, a European pioneer for sustainable animal feed, is building its first large-scale factory in France to scale up production of its insect protein.  In aquaculture, Calysta is manufacturing FeedKind, a sustainable alternative to fishmeal using naturally occurring microbes found in soils worldwide. WWF is working with the feed industry to bring some of these solutions to market at scale.

Innovation is happening at the consumer end too. Meat production has one of the highest environmental footprints; as an example, cattle ranching occupies about 80 per cent of the deforested area of the Amazon. In a resulting attempt to replace animal protein, companies are developing plant-based meat substitutes. Impossible Foods have developed the Impossible Burger, a burger which feels, tastes and cooks like meat but is made entirely from plants.

Memphis Meats, on the other hand, creates cultured meatballs by isolating and subsequently regenerating a small amount of animal cells. Gold & Green Foods from Finland has developed a pulled ‘pork’ made from protein-rich Scandinavian oats and broad beans.

It is more difficult, though, to change consumer preference and to shift choice to be more environmentally sustainable, due to traditions, culture, habits and disposable incomes. The good news is that a healthy diet, following WHO guidelines, is also one that has less environmental impacts. We have to start with awareness raising and getting consumers to understand the impact of their choices on their health and the environment.

To that end, WWF runs multiple programmes to educate and inform consumers. Last year, many WWF offices partnered with education authorities to deliver information directly within the classroom at primary and secondary levels, when food habits are still being formed.

Targeting a more mature audience, WWF-France and WWF-Italy both developed digital apps which allowed shoppers to make better decisions, delivering recipe suggestions and outlining the carbon cost of a shopping list.

The signs of progress are encouraging and the goal of building a sustainable food system is achievable, but only with continued action. It is vitally important that we all take responsibility for our actions and food choices. Innovative alternate solutions are increasingly available. If we choose to embrace them, it is possible to create a sustainable food system together.

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