Agri-FoodTech Can Have Critical Impact. Here’s How.
It has been seven years since the United Nations established its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aimed at making “a better and more sustainable future for all.” The 17 SDGs are integrated, so that action in one area will affect outcomes in others, and together they call for development that must balance economic, environmental, and social sustainability.
Food’s Role in Achieving SDGs
As the 2030 deadline for achieving the SDGs draws ever closer, the role that our food system plays in reaching these objectives is coming to the fore.
Ensuring everyone on the planet has enough food to eat is clearly vital to a sustainable future. Here is the most obvious crossover between the goals and food, with SDG 2 (Zero Hunger) calling for the world to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture.”
But most, if not all, of the SDGs touch on our agrifood system in one way or another. According to the World Bank, around a quarter of the world’s population is employed in agriculture. That percentage obviously becomes substantially higher when the wider agrifood industry, from the farm to food manufacturing, logistics, and so on, is taken into account. This could mean anywhere between 30% and 80% — depending on where you are and who you ask — of the world’s food is grown by smallholder farmers tilling tiny plots of land. Most of these are located in Asia and Africa, areas more reliant on smallholder production, and where it is expected will bear the brunt of climate change in the years to come.
Take, for instance, SDG 13 (Climate Action). Anthropogenic climate change has a direct impact on our ability to produce food for ourselves. Desertification, changing weather patterns, drought, floods, and rising sea levels will mean that farmers have to grow more on marginal land. This problem particularly affects smallholders in places like South and Southeast Asia and parts of Africa, where arable land use is already close to capacity.
The issue of land availability is also relevant for SDG 8 (Decent Work & Economic Growth) and SDG 7 (Sustainable Cities); urbanization is another factor in reduced agricultural-use land, and in many places the trend towards rapid urban growth is driven by migration of low-income agricultural workers from rural areas, seeking higher incomes and better opportunities.
While all may seem unattainable, this is before we even mention SDG 14 (Life Below Water) and SGD 15 (Life on Land) which call for the conservation of marine resources — including seafood — and the protection of biodiversity and terrestrial ecosystems, such as forests. SDG 3 (Good Health and Well-being), meanwhile, directly speaks to nutrition and the food we eat.
Given this, it’s fairly obvious that changing our agrifood system is vital to achieving not just one, but all of the SDGs.
But how do we do it? We believe that technology is the answer.
‘Agri-FoodTech’ is a portmanteau of agtech and foodtech – a term that describes technological innovation aimed at disrupting the global food and agriculture industry across the entire food supply chain — “from farm to fork” or “from plough to plate” if you’d prefer!
Only by adopting this holistic understanding of the food ecosystem — encompassing production, distribution, and consumption of food – can lasting change be made.
Let’s take a look at some of the sector’s most exciting innovators, and how they’re addressing the SDGs.
In developed and developing countries alike, farms can make productivity and income gains through technology adoption. This might come from on-farm technologies, such as autonomous robots for greenhouse agriculture built by Iron Ox.
Trace Genomics tests the soil microbiome and suggests ecological treatments that can improve yields and ultimately preserve soil health for future generations. Pivot Bio and Kula Bio are among the start-ups looking to address the emissions related with fertilizer use; many others are making other agricultural inputs more sustainable by leveraging biotechnology to reduce our reliance on chemicals. Particularly in emerging markets, low-income or remotely-located growers may simply need better access to inputs, sales channels, or knowhow — as provided by DeHaat in India or AgriAku in Indonesia.
As the population grows and the effects of climate change and urbanization continue to take hold, more of our food will need to be produced in areas we wouldn’t normally think of in terms of agriculture. Highly localized production will become more important, leading to reduced carbon footprints and less chance of food waste and spoilage on long intercontinental journeys. Singrow can build an entire indoor farming system for tropical cities — encompassing breeding, growing, and harvesting — for high-quality, high-value crops that typically need to be imported from temperate regions. (It’s starting with strawberries!).
Highly localized production also means the manufacture of proteins and other food items in a lab or bioreactor, rather than relying solely on traditional, emissions-heavy and land-hungry sources such as herd livestock. Nowadays and Simulate are making ‘chicken’ nuggets without chickens, while Change Foods, New Culture, and Perfect Day are among the start-ups leveraging advanced fermentation technology to create dairy products without cow’s milk. It’s not just food — MycoWorks, Mycotech Lab, and Ecovative are creating leather alternatives from mushroom mycelia, again reducing our reliance on large-scale cattle production.
Many of the most pressing environmental and economic issues with food happen after it has been harvested, but before it reaches the consumer. A constellation of supply chain-focused tech startups are seeking to offer solutions to these myriad problems.
Chinova Bioworks produces a natural, mushroom-derived food preservative that reduces food spoilage, meaning that less of the precious food we produce goes to waste while moving through the supply chain. Apeel and Mori have created natural, biodegradable, and practically invisible coatings for fresh produce that lock in freshness for longer, extending shelf life.
This is by no means an exhaustive rundown of the innovators who are transforming the agrifood industry and helping it to hit its sustainability goals. Luckily for all of us, there are many, many more – check out our i3 database to find them.