I recently joined over 200 people at the Climate School and the University of Columbia, NYC, for Clim-Eat’s INNOV-EAT Expedition. At its heart, the event was a celebration of innovation. It involved taking a look at some of the exciting work going on within the food system to make it more sustainable and climate-smart.
This is right up my street. I’m a firm believer that efforts to tackle climate change and conserve nature will fail if they don’t take into account the impact of food and the food system. The food system is already the second-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions globally. With the world population set to reach 10 billion by 2050, food-related emissions are likely to rise significantly, and pressure to expand agriculture into wild spaces is also likely to intensify.
As director of the future of food at the Bezos Earth fund, part of my role is to find ways to nurture food systems innovations to try to tackle these problems. That means taking risks, making bold bets, and encouraging other investors and disruptors to do the same.
The INNOV-EAT Expedition did just that. It lifted the lid on how the scientific community is responding to the need to bring food production, consumption and distribution back within planetary boundaries.
Innovations discussed included supercharging food crops to produce higher yields via enhanced photosynthetic efficiency and developing shade-tolerance so that heat-sensitive crops can be grown out of the glare of the sun. It also looked at reducing methane emissions by re-engineering the gut microbiomes of cattle, and using a plasma reactor to synthesize ammonia, a key plant nutrient. Yes, you read that correctly, a plasma reactor!
While these are all exciting innovations that target specific weaknesses in the current food system, they won’t all be relevant, appropriate, affordable, or acceptable everywhere. In other words, none of them will be a silver bullet. And they’re not supposed to be.
Instead, each will play a role in the broader “innovation ecosystem” - the huge range of new ideas that is continually being developed, tested, refined and deployed in response to specific challenges. Rather than single interventions, it’s the totality of innovations that will produce the results we need. The food system is such a large and complex beast that I believe this is the only way to do it.
Getting there means we need to challenge the status quo. For example, tweaks to agricultural management that are achingly slow to produce little more than underwhelming results will no longer cut the mustard. Climate change and habitat destruction aren’t waiting for us; we need to catch up. Only a wide spread of bold bets will get us there.
Of course, this also means there will be difficult conversations ahead – not just for donors and investors, but society-wide. We need new thinking, new innovations, new policies and new investments. We need to have serious and open discussions about controversial issues such as diets, animal sourced foods and alternatives to it, fertilizer use, GMOs and certain models of industrial farming. When it comes to discussing the future of food, nothing should be off the table.
If that sounds daunting, it shouldn’t be. Look at how the world of food systems and climate change has itself transformed in the last decade: Ten years ago, food issues were on the sidelines of global discussions about tackling climate change. Now, food is on the agenda of the climate change community and vice versa. That’s a huge shift in perception, public opinion and behavior, and it creates an environment in which innovations and new ways of thinking can flourish.
As all eyes now turn to COP28 in Dubai later in the year, we want to turn moments like the INNOV-EAT Expedition into momentum, and use them to raise our ambitions and, along with them, the prospect of a sustainable food future.