Photo credit: World Economic Forum

Last week, global leaders met in Davos, Switzerland for the 2019 World Economic Forum Annual Meeting. The conversation centered on globalization, climate change, and technology use, all of which play a role in food systems across the world. Technology in particular holds significant potential to transform global food systems into drivers of inclusive, sustainable development, according to the WEF’s new report, Innovation with a Purpose: Improving Traceability in Food Value Chains through Technology.

The report highlights the potential of emerging technologies to improve traceability in food value chains. This traceability can help reduce food waste and outbreaks of food-borne illnesses, both of which remain a significant challenge worldwide. According to the World Health Organization, as many as 600 million people get sick and 420,000 die annually due to contaminated food. In addition, a sizeable portion of the food produced globally each year is lost or wasted.

Technologies for improving traceability along food value chains include the use of sensors and GPS to track food products (including their location and condition) along the entire chain; block chain technology to track, aggregate, and share supply chain data; non-invasive/non-destructive sensing (such as spectroscopy) to measure and track products’ quality and safety; and machine learning and image-processing to analyze all of this data.
These technologies are among the “Transformative Twelve” listed by the WEF report and can help enhance global food systems in a number of ways. First, they can help fulfill consumer demand for greater transparency in food supply chains. Consumers want to know that the food they are buying is safe and sustainably produced. By providing more reliable data about food products from farm to fork, emerging technologies can help meet this demand.

Second, technologies that enhance traceability can help policymakers and food companies respond more efficiently and effectively to outbreaks of food-borne illnesses. In addition to identifying and containing such outbreaks, new technologies can also be used to inform better inspection and quality control processes, thus reducing the risk of further food safety issues.

Third, technologies for traceability can help identify where food is being lost and wasted along the food value chain. This information can help producers, processors, and policymakers adjust value chain functioning to cut waste, accelerate product processing, and reduce spoilage costs. Finally, these technologies can be used to validate food companies’ and governments’ claims regarding production practices, thus assuring a level of accountability for commitments on sustainability.

However, the report also points out that increasing the use of such emerging technologies does pose risks. Most important is the risk of excluding smallholder farmers and small and medium enterprises in developing countries. More than 75 percent of investments in agriculture and food technology take place in developed countries. Multi-stakeholder collaborations will be needed to ensure that developing regions are not left behind in the race to develop innovative food technologies. These collaborations should include a wide range of actors, including producers, governments, technology companies, agribusiness companies, retailers, and civil society.

At the Davos Meeting, Juergen Voegele, Senior Director of the World Bank’s Food and Agriculture Global Practice stated, "The Fourth Industrial Revolution is transforming food systems before our eyes. But we cannot take its benefits for granted, especially in developing countries where the value chain is dominated by smallholder farmers and small and medium food enterprises. Now is the time to look at emerging technologies and ask ourselves what it is we can do, on the policy and advocacy side, to ensure they are moving the world in the direction of inclusive and sustainable development.”

The report calls for a focus on “pathways to scale”, meaning policies, standards, and economic models to support the inclusive scaling of new agricultural technology. These pathways can include public and private sector investments to overcome infrastructure gaps and develop lower-cost technological solutions to common agricultural roadblocks; models to support financing of smallholders’ capital needs and operational costs; and the development of clear, consistent, and globally harmonized standards for data collection, governance, and sharing.

Technology can be a powerful driver of positive transformation in global food systems. To ensure that such transformation is sustainable and inclusive, global actors will need to work together to overcome existing challenges to technology uptake, particularly in developing regions. This call for collaborative action was echoed throughout the broader Davos conversation, highlighting the need for policymakers, business leaders, and civil society actors to think across national and sectoral lines in order to meet the world’s growing challenges.

By: Sara Gustafson, IFPRI

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