In an urbanizing world, the strategic deployment of technology and innovation can be a critical catalyst of agrifood systems transformation.127 This section discusses the potential of technology and innovation to contribute to increasing efficiency, inclusiveness, resilience and sustainability of agrifood systems under urbanization, which are key for making healthy diets available and affordable for all and, in turn, achieving food security and nutrition.
Countries have varied needs and capacities with respect to technologies and innovations, and there are important differences within countries and between segments of agrifood systems. Urbanization offers additional opportunities for agrifood systems to rapidly evolve and innovate across the rural–urban continuum (see Figure 21 in Chapter 3). Of course, no single “silver bullet” technology or innovation will meet all needs in all contexts across the rural–urban continuum. Furthermore, innovations cannot be considered in isolation: potential trade-offs and co-benefits must be considered, both among the innovations themselves and in relation to other agrifood systems interventions. For example, automation can lead to unemployment, especially for manual labourers/low-skilled workers, when it is incentivized through government subsidies in areas where labour is abundant. However, it also has the potential to stimulate employment in logistics and processing due to increased production as well as generate new jobs that demand high levels of cognitive ability (this entails building the knowledge and skills of agricultural workers to facilitate the transition).128 Therefore, the development and use of technologies and innovations should be guided by the assessment of their socioeconomic, environmental and ethical impacts.
A plethora of technologies and innovations is available (though not necessarily accessible to all countries and social groups) spanning entire agrifood systems. Whether these technologies and innovations are inclusive for all depends not only on their adoption and impact, but also on how research and development (R&D) is shaped. Between 1981 and 2016, there was a doubling of global public investment in agricultural R&D, and larger middle-income countries (MICs), in particular Brazil, China and India, significantly increased their investment in agricultural R&D.129 However, smaller LMICs continue to have insufficient investment compared to other components of general services support such as infrastructure investments.at, 14 The long time lag between investments and their impact on the ground, as well as the “invisible” nature of research and innovation compared to tangible investments in physical infrastructure, are contributing factors for this neglect.
Public spending on agricultural R&D is still lower than private spending. From 1990 to 2014, private spending on agricultural R&D worldwide more than tripled (with companies based in HICs accounting for 88 percent of global private agricultural R&D spending), but was still focused on a relatively small number of commodities.131 Venture capitalist investments in the agrifood technology sector reached USD 29.6 billion in 2022, though this represented a 44 percent decline from 2021.132 However, the increasingly important role of the private sector in R&D poses challenges. The concentration of some key agrifood markets in the hands of a few multinational corporations and the increased vertical integration could lead to an R&D agenda that favours certain financial interests over sustainability considerations, and promotes the adoption of high-tech and high-cost technological and innovative solutions above others.133, 134 Indeed, looking at research and innovation trends, it appears that in highly concentrated markets, the focus of innovation is primarily on “defensive” R&D, aimed at safeguarding existing products or technologies rather than promoting novel ideas.135 Nevertheless, innovative business approaches used in the private sector could still be beneficial for agrifood systems: for instance, the idea of the “circular economy”au is promoting the development of innovative approaches to reduce food loss and waste at different stages of the food supply chain, including at the domestic level.134
An exhaustive and complete listing of technologies and innovations (including those in the ever-expanding pipeline) is beyond the scope of this section. Illustrative examples are provided to showcase diverse options that could be bundled together in contextually appropriate packages, and considered as integral elements of a portfolio of policies, investments and legislation for transforming agrifood systems to make healthy diets affordable for all.137 In particular, there are a multitude of rapidly advancing digital innovations that cross-cut all segments of agrifood systems, opening up the possibility of transforming these systems in unprecedented ways across the rural–urban continuum, including offering LMICs opportunities to leapfrog existing technologies that are less efficient. It is estimated that by 2050 each farm alone could produce around 4.1 million data points daily (compared with 190 000 data points produced per farm per day in 2014).138 Extrapolating across various aspects of agrifood systems, such data can improve the use of public funds by identifying the most effective and efficient policy options as well as reducing transaction costs along the policy cycle (from implementation to monitoring and compliance to evaluation). For instance, the use of geospatial data could provide evidence for policymaking using a rural–urban continuum lens,139 and it could be particularly important for improving common and differentiated policy entry points.
However, innovations in digital technologies risk increasing the digital divide across socioeconomic groups (e.g. income, gender and age), geographies (e.g. rural and urban populations) and geopolitical groups, in addition to raising concerns around control of information and power, democracy and human rights. Some of the factors to address include the high cost of some digital technologies, absence of digital infrastructure, lack of digital skills and literacy, and sociocultural barriers linked to gender as well as issues of information asymmetry, data ownership and management, privacy, and cybersecurity. Worldwide, 2.7 billion people do not have access to the internet, and fixed or mobile broadband services are too expensive for the average consumer in most low-income countries.140 Moreover, in LMICs, women are 16 percent less likely to utilize mobile internet compared to men, while adults residing in rural areas are 33 percent less likely to use mobile internet than their urban counterparts.141
Food environments and consumer behaviour-oriented technology and innovation
In urbanizing contexts, where consumers are increasingly exposed to highly processed foods, increasing the demand for nutritious foods is particularly important. The application of behavioural science is an essential innovation that enables governments, scientists and the public to work together to develop evidence-based approaches to increase access to affordable healthy diets, as well as empower consumers to choose healthy diets. When employed as an iterative, innovation process, behavioural science can help identify barriers to consuming a healthy diet as well as help design, test and scale solutions to overcome them. Considering that food outlets are a major source of foods all across the rural–urban continuum, nudgesav at the point of purchase can be used to interrupt automated behavioural responses and redirect them towards healthier food choices.
Nudging interventions in school cafeterias or local grocery shops have produced positive results in steering individual dietary choices towards more nutritious foods in high-income countries,143, 144 and they would not be too costly for lower-income countries to emulate as a useful adjunct to important regulatory and economic policy tools. For example, a trial involving ten primary schools in Australia aimed to encourage the selection of healthier foods and beverages from the online school menu. By introducing multiple nudges including placement (listing healthy items first), prompts and appealing descriptions of target foods, the intervention was able to significantly lower the energy, saturated fat and sodium content of children’s school lunches compared to a non-intervention control.145
Food labelling can contribute to a healthy food environment by providing information to the consumer about the content of foods, drawing consumer attention to the benefits and risks of particular nutrients or ingredients of public health concern, and motivating manufacturers to produce foods which have healthier nutrition profiles.146 Nutrient profiling is a method that assesses the nutritional quality of processed foods and beverages. It is also a tool to guide policy interventions such as front-of-package (FOP) or menu labelling and restrictions on marketing to children to help inform and empower consumers to shift demand towards healthy diets. For example, the OBAASIMA project in Ghana has used a FOP seal and social marketing campaign to encourage local SMEs to produce nutritious products. The project has shown promising preliminary results in increasing consumer awareness and SME capacity and is expanding to more cities.54 Regional nutrient profiles have also been developed as a resource for national or local policymakers.147, 148, 149, 150, 151
Promoting – while preserving – traditional foods originating from Indigenous Peoples’ agrifood systems through labelling and certification (including territorial labels, geographic indications and participatory guarantee schemes) can create niche markets and enhance awareness of the specificity of such products. For example, in Ecuador, the Chakra label primarily targets local markets and sensitizes consumers about the distinctive sociocultural aspect of the Chakra system as well as the nutritional value of local products.152 However, given the large number of different labels on the market and existing barriers to compete with global commodity prices, innovative labels alone may not enable an upscaling of Indigenous Peoples’ product sales. Therefore, building relationships and collective processes together with trusted representatives of the private sector, especially relevant market players, as well as governments and researchers in both social and natural sciences, can be critical in developing sustainable marketing strategies for Indigenous Peoples’ food products.
The use of whole genome sequencing can be an effective tool for identifying and tracing foodborne pathogens, and for detecting contaminants as well as outbreak investigations.153 Traceability data, including through mobile applications, helps inform consumers about the origin of food sold in supermarkets, promoting transparency in pricing and making supply chains more efficient and accountable.154
Online food sharing services can gather and redistribute food surpluses across local communities and supermarkets in urban and rural areas, thus helping to reduce food waste. They can also have a positive impact on food environments, especially when surplus nutritious foods such as fruits and vegetables are “rescued” and redistributed. Smartphone applications that enable users to make small donations to specific initiatives can provide support for a range of operations, from building resilience to implementing school feeding programmes to delivering food assistance in emergency situations.155
The increased use of mobile phones in LMICs has contributed to the adoption of other services such as mobile money, enabling reduced transaction costs and enhanced financial inclusion. Mobile money can improve farmers’ access to higher-value markets (thus increasing their income) and to off-farm income sources as well.156 In Kenya, Uganda and the United Republic of Tanzania, it has been shown to have positive impacts on household welfare, including in some cases by diversifying food purchases and improving dietary diversity.157 While the benefits of using mobile money in rural areas are already established, the advantages for urban areas are now being recognized as well – as seen in Zimbabwe, for instance, where cash transfers are delivered in urban settings through mobile money.158
Food labs involve the coming together of a group of people in complementary roles in order to experiment with finding novel solutions159 to complex challenges in agrifood systems, including food insecurity and unaffordability of healthy diets. Experimenting with, inter alia, technologies, policies, participatory approaches, actions and ideas can be an important source of innovation and capacity building. For example, the Uganda Food Change Lab was set up to address district-level issues of limited local processing facilities, depleted local soils and child malnutrition, largely a result of undiversified diets. The lab carried out food dialogues, research and workshops with a group of diverse actorsaw in agrifood systems, including those not normally given a voice, in order to generate stakeholder awareness. The country’s first People’s Summit on Food was then convened, resulting in a range of commitments from all stakeholder groups.160 In Brazil, the collaborative platform, Urban Laboratory of Public Food Policies (LUPPA), supports the development and strengthening of an integrated urban food agenda, while providing data and content on municipal experiences. It includes a year-long programme that delivers an extended repertoire of tools for cities to become better able to develop their local food policy strategies. LUPPA’s participant cities encompass Brazil’s 5 regions, covering 18 of the 26 Brazilian states, and comprising more than 11 million people.161
Midstream food supply chain-related technology and innovation
Urbanization is leading to a growing demand for packaged and pre-prepared foods, even in low-income countries. As analysed in Chapter 4, consumption of processed foods and food away from home is higher in urban areas, but there is a diffusion across the rural–urban continuum. There is also a noticeable rise in the number of midstream SMEs involved in wholesale, transport and processing, as well as upstream SMEs involved in supplying inputs, especially in Africa and Southern Asia.162 Small and medium enterprises are typically embedded in rural agricultural areas and play an important role in expanding market opportunities and strengthening the linkages between urban and rural areas. As such, innovative approaches that enhance the capacity of SMEs to increase the availability of nutritious and safe food, improve the food environment, and facilitate the consumption of healthy diets are key.
Innovative business models such as the Egg Hub operator model (Box 12) can support the consumption of healthy diets, while providing small-scale producers with quality inputs and services as well as market access.
BOX 12EGG HUB OPERATOR MODEL: A SCALABLE WIN–WIN SOLUTION FOR SMALL-SCALE PRODUCERS AND LOW-INCOME CONSUMERS
The Egg Hub operator model has been piloted by Sight and Life, a non-profit foundation, in several countries including Ethiopia, India and Malawi. This model offers rural small-scale producers access to urban and peri-urban markets for their surplus. The producers are organized into groups of five and given input packages, loans, training and market support to sell their eggs, as well as wholesale rates for improved feed. The eggs produced by these groups are primarily sold within their communities, and not to commercial establishments where eggs would be used as ingredients. Any excess eggs are collected and sold in urban and peri-urban markets. The farmers repay their loans within three to five years, and the money from the loan repayments is used to create a revolving fund to help increase the number of farmers in the hub. An Egg Hub operator and its affiliated farmers can cater to a catchment area with a maximum radius of 100 km.
In Malawi, the first Egg Hub operator model aimed to produce over 10 million eggs annually for small-scale producers and rural communities. The model’s 175 farmers increased their egg production threefold, allowing them to sell eggs to consumers at a 40 percent discount, reaching an estimated number of 210 000 rural poor. Women particularly benefited, as they were extensively involved in small animal raising. The Egg Hub model also provided an added advantage by helping small-scale producers transition from backyard rearing to small-scale farm rearing, reducing the risk of children’s exposure to chicken faeces and infections. Additionally, the Malawi model proved to be more sustainable, requiring 69 percent less land usage, 33 percent less water usage, and generating 84 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions compared to backyard poultry, primarily due to lower levels of egg wastage and better biosecurity. Another crucial aspect of the Egg Hub model is its ability to address the challenge of small-scale producers accessing bank loans. By providing access to quality inputs and a guaranteed market for their products, the model offers farmers a better chance of secure funding for their business.163
The increasing demand for perishable products such as fruits and vegetables, dairy products, meat and aquatic foods has led to a proliferation of freezing and packaging technologies.
Mobile pre-cooling and pack house units offer farmers the option of pre-cooling their produce when there is no immediate access to cold storage technology.164 Cold chains can be augmented with internet of thingsax sensors and big data, allowing for real-time decision-making for temperature-sensitive products and perishables as they move across the chain or are maintained in storage.
Cold chains provide benefits in terms of maintaining food quality (including nutritional quality) and safety, reducing food loss and waste, and facilitating market access, and they are also key to maintaining the integrity of veterinary medicines and vaccines to help prevent and manage outbreaks of zoonotic diseases. However, cold chains pose significant risks in terms of environmental damage that the refrigeration equipment can cause. Furthermore, many barriers impede the use of cold chains in LMICs: lack of access to reliable power and equipment, limited resources for public and private sector investments, inability of small-scale farmers to afford cooling technologies, and lack of technical skills, among others.166 Within LMICs, cold chain capacity and utilization is much greater for exported food products than for food destined for domestic markets. Climate-friendly refrigeration systems based on renewable energy can help cold chains become more sustainable, though challenges such as access to reliable and affordable energy need to be addressed.167
Innovations in food packaging can maintain the quality, safety and nutritional value of food products, meet consumer needs and preferences, reduce food loss and waste, and reduce the cost of nutritious foods, especially across longer distribution chains. For example, organic sprays of thin lipids on fruits and vegetables can extend shelf-life, offering great benefits in countries with limited refrigeration.168 “Intelligent” packaging utilizes materials that can monitor the condition and environment of packaged food, alerting retailers or consumers to any compromise or contamination such as changes in colour. It can also include “smart” labels such as QR codes that track products throughout the supply chain, verifying product safety and providing additional information (e.g. details on allergens and sourcing). Alternatives to plastic packaging include biopackaging solutions such as bioplastics from organic waste streams, though materials vary significantly in terms of the quantity of renewable resources used in their formulation, and may not be as readily compostable as claimed. Moreover, these solutions remain difficult to upscale as they must be tailored to usage requirements.169
Circular packaging solutions can include redesigning packaging formats and delivery models, introducing reusable packaging, and improving the economics and quality of recycled plastic materials.170 For example, returnable and transit packaging in the form of returnable plastic crates is widely used in agrifood value chains because of its cost-effectiveness, durability and reusability over extended periods. In Bangladesh, the switch from single-use plastics to returnable plastic crates for long-distance transportation of fresh fruits and vegetables, together with the application of good management practices, has improved fresh produce quality and shelf-life and increased stakeholder incomes while safeguarding consumers against food safety risks and considerably reducing post-harvest losses.171 The development of cross-collaborative engagement among producers, processors, retailers and distributors will be critical in driving the shift from the current, linear “take–make–consume–dispose” model of the agrifood value chain, towards more circular systemic approaches to ensure sustainability.172
E-commerce platforms offer opportunities to increase affordability of healthy diets, by shortening value chains and increasing market access. These platforms can also contribute to women’s empowerment by enabling women to earn an independent source of income, work from home, and set their own working hours. Moreover, e-commerce has the potential to reduce the number of intermediaries and balance the power relationships within value chains, resulting in higher prices paid for producers and cheaper produce for consumers.173, 174 The growth of e-commerce was further accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, from 10 to 20 percent per year in China, 30 to 70 percent in India, and 20 to 50 percent in Nigeria,175 and to some extent, consumers are now more reliant on food e-commerce (and delivery) than they were pre-pandemic.83 A key barrier to the adoption and scaling of e-commerce, however, is the unequal access to internet connectivity in some regions. This can limit not only the consumer base of e-commerce platforms, but also the possibility for small-scale producers to directly advertise their products on such platforms, therefore maintaining (or even increasing) their reliance on intermediaries for non-traditional supply channels.
With the rising popularity of e-commerce, food safety has become a crucial issue for online retailers. To ensure food safety, retailers must take measures to prevent contamination during storage, transportation and delivery. This includes maintaining appropriate temperatures for perishable goods, using safe packaging materials, and implementing proper sanitation measures. Retailers must also adhere to local and federal regulations governing food safety. Clear and accurate information about the origin, contents and expiration dates of food products is essential for informed consumer choices and to mitigate potential health risks.176, 177, 178, 179
The rise of e-commerce due to advances in mobile technology and widespread wireless internet availability is shifting the way people interact with their food environments. This “digitalization” of food environments is enabling food retailers to sell foods online, resulting in unprecedented consumer access to a large variety of foods (both nutritious foods and foods of high energy density and minimal nutritional value). On the downside, online food retail and meal delivery apps often have specific promotions on foods high in fats, sugars and/or salt.180, 181, 182, 183, 184, 185, 186, 187 Though mainly used in urban settings in high- and middle-income countries, meal delivery apps are growing in popularity and spreading to smaller cities and towns, potentially contributing to an expansion of food swamps by increasing geographic access to foods prepared away from home188, 189 and/or availability of foods high in fats, sugars and/or salt in areas where physical shops selling nutritious foods are sparse. A study analysing meal delivery apps found, for example, that a greater number of fastfood options were available in the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods.190
Food production-related technology and innovation
Family farms produce approximately 80 percent of the world’s food in value terms, with farms under 2 hectares producing roughly 35 percent.191 Additionally, the majority of the world’s poor and food insecure live in rural areas and depend on agriculture for their livelihood.192 Hence it is critical to increase farm productivity and incomes in rural areas, enhance market access for small-scale producers, and improve connectivity to facilitate smoother flows of goods, services and information across the rural–urban continuum.
Simultaneously, rapid urbanization combined with rising incomes is shifting patterns of food supply and demand, accelerating a diet transition. Consumption is also changing in rural areas, leading agricultural production to diversify towards nutritious foods. Growing fruits and vegetables can create economic opportunities for farmers, not only in rural but also in peri-urban and urban areas. Diversification also increases resilience to climate, environmental and market shocks across different production settings.
As already noted, urban and peri-urban agriculture (UPA) can provide easy access to fresh and nutritious foods, and make healthy diets more affordable in peri-urban and urban areas. In addition, it can help optimize the use of scarce urban resources such as land and water, though it is important to exercise caution in areas which may have contamination issues as there could potentially be substantial food safety risks. More than 1 billion individuals residing in urban and peri-urban regions are involved in growing food or agricultural activities, and urban agglomerations encompass a global farm area that exceeds 60 million hectares.126 Nonetheless, while UPA can improve food security and nutrition in and around cities, it is unlikely that it can satisfy the needs of urban populations, so its development should be complementary to that of rural agriculture and concentrate on activities where there is a distinct comparative advantage, such as production of fresh, perishable foods.
Numerous technologies and innovations can be leveraged for enhancing productivity in rural, peri-urban and urban areas as well as for closing the productivity gap in LMICs, especially in the face of the climate crisis and dwindling natural resources. With water scarcity becoming a reality in many places across the rural–urban continuum, technologies such as rainwater storage can optimize water-use efficiency in rainfed agriculture.193 For example, roof-harvested rainwater can positively impact productivity and improve the sustainable usage of water in UPA.194 Moreover, the safe use of wastewater can lead to important energy savings for food production, and for cities in general. Nutrients recovered from wastewater can be used instead of inorganic fertilizers as well.195 In addition, fog catcher systems have been implemented in arid zones and have increased the availability of water for food production in several Latin America and the Caribbean countries.196, 197
Agroecological innovationsay can be market based, institutional, ecological and technological, often with a focus on knowledge co-creation.199 Agroecology recognizes that food production, distribution and consumption inherently link economic, ecological and social processes, and it is practised in diverse and locally adapted forms across the rural–urban continuum. At the plot, farm and landscape levels, it can help increase farmers’ incomes,200 improve food security and nutrition,201 use water and soil more efficiently, conserve biodiversity, provide ecosystem services, and enhance nutrient recycling, among other benefits.202 In India, the Andhra Pradesh Community-managed Natural Farming programme that aims to transition all 6 million farmers in the state to agroecological approaches has already reached more than 630 000 farmers, resulting in higher incomes and better yields as well as health benefits.203 In Ecuador, the Participatory Urban Agriculture Programme emphasizes the social inclusion of vulnerable groups and supports the production, processing and distribution of food from urban and peri-urban areas, generating revenue, creating jobs and promoting agrobiodiversity.204 It also facilitates the provision of technical assistance, microcredit and capacity building to producers. Blending agroecology with territorial approaches can help empower rural communities and bring agroecology to scale, for example by implementing territorial certification schemes and shorter value chains to improve access to markets and increase incomes of small-scale producers.205
As at 2021, organic agriculture was practised in 191 countries by nearly 3.7 million producers, but it occupied only 1.6 percent of the total agricultural land.206 Organic farming systems can provide more profits with less environmental footprint and produce nutritious foods with less pesticide residue.207 In general, organic agriculture has a positive effect on above- and below-ground biodiversity, soil carbon stocks and soil quality and conservation, but it often produces lower yields than conventional agriculture and has higher labour requirements.208 MASIPAG, a grassroots farmer-led advocacy network in the Philippines, promotes organic farming as a path for rural development. Farmers are involved in participatory plant breeding of rice varieties, farmer-to-farmer exchanges, and participatory guarantee systems for increased market access of organic products.209 Organic farming is also a common practice in UPA, with manure and urban waste compost frequently utilized to improve soil fertility. For example, the Kibera Youth Reform Organic Farm, which began on a garbage dump in Africa’s largest slum in Nairobi, grows a range of crops for own consumption as well as for sale.210 Since organic agriculture does not rely on synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, nitrogen availability is the primary impediment to the global expansion of organic agriculture.211 Additional issues relate to the potential exclusion of small-scale producers due to the cost of certification and to the price of organic products, which are often too high for consumers.212
Controlled environment agriculture (CEA), also referred to as vertical or indoor soil-less farming, encompasses numerous technologies including hydroponics, aeroponics and aquaponics. Vertical farming requires only a small plot of land and can be carried out indoors, allowing for the cultivation of food in urban and industrial spaces, and leading to shorter supply chains. For short-cycle fast-growing horticultural crops such as lettuce and leafy herbs, production in a controlled environment can cut water use by up to 95 percent while supplying consistent-quality, high-value products all year round. Vertical farms can minimize risks of foodborne illnesses and considerably reduce the need for both inputs (e.g. fertilizers and pesticides) and water (through recycling). For cereals such as wheat, studies have shown that yields in indoor vertical farms could be 220 to 600 times higher than yields in the field, while at the same time using less land.213 However, the high energy cost of producing artificial lighting and maintaining temperature and air quality makes the adoption of CEA viable mostly in HICs. The largest market share from CEA, and most of its positive results, have been found in this country income group,214, 215 but it has also been used to support vulnerable communities in LMICs using low-tech hydroponic units.216
Biotechnological innovations in genetics and breeding have led to tremendous gains in productivity, adaptation to biotic and abiotic stresses, and enhanced nutritional value. Consumption of biofortified crops can enhance nutritional status and promote better health outcomes, especially in rural areas in LMICs, where diets are significantly reliant on self-produced or locally procured staple crops. Hundreds of biofortified varieties of 12 staple crops have been released for planting in over 60 countries, with more than 86 million people in farming households eating biofortified foods. In Nigeria, farmers growing biofortified vitamin A cassava have been linked to aggregators and processors, with labelled processed products sold in rural, peri-urban and urban areas. Additionally, organizing the annual Nutritious Food Fair has been instrumental in fostering linkages among farmers, processors, marketers and consumers.217
Gene editing is a relatively new technology that offers improvements in accuracy and precision for plant and animal breeding, with the added advantage of speeding up the component processes at a reduced cost. In particular, gene editing can be exploited to increase the utility of “forgotten” crops as well as neglected and underutilized species that are nutritious and often adapted to harsh environments and conditions. Marketed gene-edited products include a gamma-aminobutyric acid-enriched tomato and two gene-edited fish in Japan, as well as soybean with improved fatty acid composition in the United States of America.218 There are diverse views, however, on how gene-edited products should be regulated, and legislation can differ widely among countries. In addition, prior debates associated with genetic modification may influence consumer acceptance of gene-edited products. Public perception studies vary on whether consumers can distinguish between genetic modification and gene editing when forming their opinions. In a recent study, respondents viewed gene-edited and genetically modified food similarly, and less favourably than conventional food. Other studies suggest that people may be more accepting of cisgenicaz modifications than of transgenicba ones, but less accepting compared to conventionally bred crops.218
Fundamental lifestyle shifts, income disparities, growing urban population diversity and changing consumer behaviour in response to numerous factors (such as concerns about the impact of food production on environmental sustainability as well as animal welfare) are disrupting the status quo of agrifood systems. New foods and novel ways of producing food are being explored. The popularity of plant-based alternatives (e.g. soy- and nut-based products) to animal source foods (e.g. meat, dairy, eggs and aquatic foods) is on the rise, although caution is needed to prevent the inadvertent increase in use of common allergens in diets.220 In addition to food safety aspects, the price and cultural acceptance of plant-based alternatives must be considered. The affordability of plant-based alternatives is anticipated to improve as consumer demand and supply grow. Currently, plant-based alternatives predominantly cater to a Western-style diet, with limited exploration into more traditional foods in different regions.
While insects have been a traditional part of many cultures’ diets for centuries in different regions, the cultivation of edible insects, for both human consumption and animal feed, is garnering significant attention worldwide due to the many possible advantages in terms of nutrition, the environment and the economy. Nonetheless, similar to other food items, edible insects can be associated with a number of food safety hazards that require attention and care in the preparation process.221 Furthermore, a greater push for the consumption of insects could result in the overexploitation of insects in their natural habitats, posing a threat to biodiversity and ecosystem stability.222
The commercial landscape for cell-based food technologies that use animal or microbial cells grown in vitro to produce animal proteins (sometimes referred to as “cultured” or “cultivated” meat) is emerging and rapidly expanding, with Singapore approving the first cell-based “chicken” nuggets in 2020.223 Cell-based food production is anticipated to require less land than traditional livestock farming, though the latter still plays a vital role in environmental functions such as maintaining soil carbon content and fertility. Further, it is unclear if cell-based foods have a greenhouse gas emissions advantage over livestock when scaled up. Different types of cell-based foods have different environmental impacts; for example, a cell-based food may have high energy requirements but reduced land-use requirements and low eutrophication potential.220 It is not known how people will perceive cell-based foods and whether they will be acceptable to consumers. Technological advancements for cell-based foods have progressed significantly, but they have not yet reached the stage of widespread production or commercialization in the majority of countries. Finally, although the production costs for cell-based foods have fallen, they are still prohibitive for many LMICs.
Digital technologies can guide and facilitate data-driven decision-making at the farm level across the rural–urban continuum by leveraging granular data about fields and animals in conjunction with accurate, timely and location-specific weather and agronomic data. Precision agriculture uses information to optimize inputs (especially targeted, timely applications of agrochemicals) and can improve resource-use efficiency in increasingly constrained conditions for agricultural producers. But efficiency gains come with a risk of rebound effects, that is they can lead to enhanced machinery and associated energy use as well as increases in usage of natural resources.224 Automation can replace dull and dangerous manual jobs, address labour shortages in certain areas and attract younger, more skilled workers. For example, agricultural robots can decrease labour and input requirements, and reduce yield losses resulting from the late detection of pests and diseases.225 However, their high purchase price and operating costs make their use prohibitive for small-scale producers. Additionally, if unskilled workers do not learn new skills quickly enough, it can be difficult to transition to new jobs. Besides, there is a possibility that small-scale producers might be driven out of business and forced to migrate to cities, because they lack the economies of scale to compete if the automation technologies are not scale neutral. Digital services such as shared asset services can enhance farmer access to mechanization hire services and significantly reduce transaction costs for small-scale producers.128 Finally, digital technologies also have the potential to facilitate cost-effective, uninterrupted and scalable extension and advisory services in rural areas. Mobile phone-based extension systems can reduce information deficiencies, and in sub-Saharan Africa and India have been estimated to improve crop yields by 4 percent and the odds of adoption of recommended inputs by 22 percent.226
Looking ahead: making technology and innovation work well for all across the rural–urban continuum
Globally, urbanization is accelerating, affecting agrifood systems across the rural–urban continuum and consequently the availability and affordability of healthy diets. As evident from the examples provided above, technology and innovation are driving changes in production processes, distribution systems, marketing strategies, and the food products consumed by people, with benefits for producers, consumers, small and medium enterprises and retailers, among others. However, promising technologies and innovations often do not gain traction, especially in low- and middle-income countries, due to issues of contextual readiness and appropriateness, and the lack of an appropriate enabling environment to support development, diffusion and adoption.
The potential of technology and innovation can and must be unlocked for the common good, but all technologies and innovations have pros and cons in terms of how they affect agrifood systems transformation and how they can reinforce inequalities, creating winners and losers across the rural–urban continuum. It is also important to acknowledge regional heterogeneity and the diversity and dynamism of agrifood systems. Therefore, technologies and innovations must be adapted to local needs, opportunities and constraints, to ensure they are accessible to all who want to adopt them. To scale up technologies and innovations in agrifood systems as well as make them more inclusive, policies and investments are needed in a number of areas including infrastructure (e.g. internet and transport connectivity); relevant capacities, skills and knowledge; effective regulatory measures; economic and legal instruments to reduce costs and risks (e.g. overconcentration of market power); appropriate market incentives; and promotion of inclusive agribusiness models. Further, bundling contextually suitable technologies with complementary financial, social and institutional innovations can allow for mitigation of trade-offs, where one innovation can compensate for negative impacts caused by another one.7
Increased public investment in agricultural R&D beyond the major staples to include a broader range of plant and animal species (including fruits and vegetables) is necessary to support the diversification of agrifood systems. Further, the research focus must broaden from solely improving productivity to improving the functioning of entire agrifood systems (i.e. the off-farm components that account for up to 70 percent of value added). Urban soils can contain multiple contaminants such as heavy metals, asbestos and petroleum products at different levels, while chemical hazards or pathogens can be found in urban wastewater that has been improperly treated; therefore more research is needed on the potential health risks to humans who consume food that is specifically grown within urban and peri-urban areas. Opportunities exist for achieving more with the resources currently invested by governments. As analysed in the 2022 edition of this report,14 most of the global support to food and agriculture is oriented towards producers through price incentives and other fiscal subsidies. These subsidies could distort the incentives for adopting certain technologies, favouring some producers over others; instead, public support could be repurposed towards increasing investments in general services support (which includes R&D) to encourage the development and adoption of technologies collectively.14, 128 Reassessing policy priorities considering the challenges created by urbanization could open the policy window to re-examine – and repurpose – current food and agriculture support.227