Although sustainable food production is in the category of large scale, complex and difficult global problems sometimes described as ‘wicked’, companies should see it as a source of opportunities and leverage it to drive innovation, argues Dr Richard Manlove of EMG CSR Consultancy and the Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership.
Despite unacceptably high levels of malnutrition globally, the large majority of planet earth’s seven billion humans have had access to adequate, good quality, affordable food for many years thanks to Herculean developments in agriculture. But ‘past performance is no guarantee of future returns’ and the challenge facing governments, agriculture and the food industry is ominous.
An approximate doubling in demand for food by 2050 must be met with finite land, water and other resources and without exacerbating the already huge environmental impact of food production. Finding solutions to this large scale, complex and difficult challenge presents huge potential opportunities for innovative organisations.
Possible approaches fall into four broad categories:
1) Reduce resource demand through qualitative and quantitative changes in diet (e.g. vegetarianism and veganism)
2) Increase productivity through intensification and technology
3) Reduce environmental impact of conventional agriculture by technological solutions and / or extensification
4) Find innovative alternative food sources (e.g. mycoprotein, in-vitro meat, insects)
Some approaches, e.g. intensive vs. extensive farming, may be conflicting and in practice some combination of all approaches will be almost certainly be required.
Companies in agriculture and related life-sciences have a key role to play but are faced with dilemmas about the right way forward. Genetic improvement, genomics and inputs such as fertilisers, crop chemicals, animal medicines and growth promoters are often regarded negatively by consumers and sustainability professionals alike due to their potential to pollute or the perception that they are unnatural. But the fact remains that we need to produce more food using less land and water and fewer animals. Tools which increase productivity can do just that and reduce environmental impact per unit of food produced. What are needed are innovative approaches which develop and deploy productivity-enhancing technologies at scale with minimal negative environmental consequences. Bio-pesticides and precision use of inputs such as fertilizers are current examples.
So what innovative approaches for companies involved directly or indirectly in food production are suggested by a sustainability perspective on food production? Based on my work in the dairy sector here are some suggestions.
- Look at current sustainability initiatives and emerging environmental regulations in your sector – what changes are coming and who is in the driving seat? If you are not already involved how can you contribute?
- Look at the production-to-consumption chain end-to-end. Many, if not most, of the challenges involve several stages and inter-related factors from different disciplines. Build ‘solution-focussed’ alliances with other players in the chain to address specific opportunities.
- Use holistic systems approaches to reveal new insights and potential solutions.
- Identify ‘clean’ technologies which you are well placed to develop to replace or improve existing products and services.
- Build radical long term scenario’s to disrupt your current patterns of thinking and generate new ideas.
The author will explore some of these ideas further in future articles.