Sustainable food production amid systemic limitations and the rising demand for food.

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Published: May 4, 2023
Over the last century, scientific progress and technological innovation introduced by the so-called “Green Revolution” in agrofood production systems, as well as triggering radical economic and social changes, have also contributed to improvements in human health and wellbeing, increasing life expectancy worldwide.

Although the increase in the older sector of the population compared to the past has led to a reduction in the global demographic growth rate, especially in developed countries, according to the United Nations the population will continue to increase in some regions, such as Africa and Asia, rising to a total of between 10 and 11 billion people by 2050.

The new, expected population increase will be matched by an inevitable increase in the demand for food, which current production systems will have to be able to meet, in a resilient and effective way, with a twofold objective: to protect the worldwide demand for more secure and nutritious food, and to respect the systemic boundaries that must not be exceeded, so as to avoid altering the planet's natural equilibriums, and causing irreversible changes to the Earth. 

Indeed, it is well known that the food production system is responsible for a significant environmental impact.

According to more recent figures, 26% of global emissions of greenhouse gases can be attributed to the agrofod sector, as can 78% of the eutrophication of the oceans and freshwater sources. Moreover, 35% (1,660 million hectares) of farmland is degraded owing to anthropic activities linked to intensive agricultural practices. Every year 4.6 million tons of chemical pesticides are released into the environment, while 1.5 million hectares of farmland are made unproductive by salinity induced by intensive agriculture, which is also responsible for 80% of lost biodiversity in our planet. Agriculture threatens 24,000 of the 28,000 known species at imminent risk of extinction.

These figures highlight the importance of adopting sustainable agricultural practices to protect ecosystems, and to ensure universal access to a nourishing and secure food supply. 

However, even before these crucial questions lies a fundamental question concerning the food system overall, and its capacity for resilience: will eco-agrofood system be able to withstand such major shocks?

To try to answer this, we have to take a step backward. Up until 2014, the number of people hit by chronic hunger was falling, and indeed it seemed plausible that the 2nd important United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (Zero Hunger) would be reached by 2030. Later the trend was reversed, arriving at the current figure of around 828 million people affected by chronic malnutrition in 2021, approximately 14 times the population of Italy, where serious food insecurity affected around 1,200,000 people, or 2% of the world's population. FAO's Annual Report (SOFI, 2022) leaves no doubt over the fact that we are taking steps backward in efforts to put an end to hunger and to ensure fair and adequate access to quantities of healthy food, and the fact that, just 7 years short of 2030, the distance for achieving many of the SDGs is gradually increasing.

Despite this, however, global food production does not seem to be falling, far outstripping demographic growth, and if we think in terms of per capita kilocalories, already in 2019 the European system provided almost 3,400 kilocalories a day.

A question arises here: if it is not transformed into food for people, where does this production surplus end up? What will it be used for? For animal feed, or for producing biofuels.

However, looking beyond these concerns, it is only natural to suppose that, in a situation of optimum redistribution and waste limitation, current food production would be more than sufficient to feed the 800 million people throughout the world who suffer from serious hunger.

There are other important factors that contribute to the instability of the food system: food security and nutrition continue to be under pressure owing to the worsening of conflicts, pandemics, extreme climatic conditions, and economic shocks. These factors, combined with the high cost of healthy and nutritious food, and the increase in inequality over access to them, create further challenges to guaranteeing adequate food for everyone.

The fragility of the agrofood system derives from the influence of all these pressures, and the interaction between them, pressures that easily risk exposing it to the limitations of critical thresholds, to collapse, and to points of no return. Hence its stability is increasingly bound up with knowledge of these factors, and spreading that knowledge. Meanwhile, in view of the complexity and seriousness of these factors, they cannot remain the sole preserve of academics, experts, or scientists. Any pressure linked to the eco-agrofood sphere must be addressed also, and especially, in terms of models of governance and public policy: in this way, all knowledge in the sector may be transferred to political decision-makers and to national authorities, and be used in concrete terms.

If the intention is to foster the sustainability of the food production and distribution system, the required effort is large-scale, and certainly directed at a considerable variety of stakeholders, including governments, non-governmental organisations, and companies.

The research work that Spoke 01 of the OnFoods Foundation intends to carry out is aimed in these very directions: providing advanced scientific evidence for those who design business and government models, for people who monitor and decide on food policies, and for those who make efforts for the technology transfer that is necessary for sustainable innovation of small and medium-sized enterprises.

Specifically, Work Package 1.1, coordinated by the University of Parma and the University of Milan, directs the research work towards four main tasks, all involving sustainability of food production, also including aspects connected to the dimension of its consumption.

The work package will first work on a mapping of important case studies focused on models of governance applied to long-distance and short-distance value chains. The findings of these studies will be published in reports designed to analyse possible solutions for the governance of commodity chains. Moreover, the issue of cross-sector partnerships will also be addressed, dwelling on how specific organisational models may improve the recovery and redistribution of food to groups of vulnerable people, especially in urban areas.

Another crucial question examined in the work package is measuring the sustainability of short-distance and long-distance value chains, which will also require mapping of the best practices of transparency and communication of sustainability. Furthermore, it will be necessary to assess the economic and legal impacts linked to food policies by means of legislative frameworks corresponding to several levels of government - regional, national and European – on which sustainability stress tests will be conducted.

Finally, also explored will be the issue of technological innovation as a driver of social innovation in companies and, via these, for society at large. Indeed, organisations may be regarded as enablers of social innovation, in the sense of a collective response to the needs of the community, by means of technological and social processes, and collective actions that bring innovation. Thus, technology transfer mechanisms in small and medium-sized businesses in the food sector will be analysed, in an attempt to understand the impacts of these in terms of social innovation.

Inclusive and sustainable technological innovations: the SOC_INN research project

The research project entitled “Social innovation and technology transfer in food value chains” dwells on precisely this aspect: the identification and development of technological, social and organisational innovations to improve the sustainability of the food system.

The project, conducted by the University of Parma, the University of Bari and the University of Naples, has several different operational areas: first, the economic and institutional context in which technological innovations are developed will be analysed; the organisations in the food system that adopt these technologies will be identified; urban and environmental planning will be improved; and the strategies adopted by public- and private-sector organisations for the introduction of technological innovations will be investigated.

In particular, there will be an analysis of the WTA, namely the "Willingness to Adopt", on the part of organisations in the food system in relation to the institutional context and to the chosen technological, social and management innovations. 

The aim of the project is to identify the most effective strategies for spreading these innovations within supply chains that represent Local Agrifood Systems and Food Environments.

The overall approach is agro-urban participatory planning, which allows greater participation of ordinary members of the public in environmental and urban planning. In this way, the intention is to ensure an inclusive adoption of these innovations that is able to meet the needs of the various different players involved.

"The adoption of the concept of sustainability in food supply chains involves use of innovations that must necessarily safeguard environmental, social and economic sustainability, altering the system of relations between agricultural production and consumers." Prof. Filippo Arfini

This blog post is related to

Spoke 01

Global Sustainability

Fair food market for healthy citizens

Lead organisationUniPr

Spoke leaderFilippo Arfini
Research projectSOC_INN

Social innovation and technology transfer in food value chain

Managed by

Principal investigators

Filippo Arfini

Referred to

Spoke 01

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