3 key food system challenges and how we can tackle them

By Christina Senn-Jakobsen, SFNV Managing Director

Wednesday, Mar 27 2024

“We have an urgent need for speed, scale, and collaboration if we’re to secure a resilient and livable future on this planet.”

Our food systems are responsible for a third of greenhouse gas emissions and as much as 80% of biodiversity loss. A third of our soil is degraded, our global water budget is under pressure, global temperatures are rising, and the human health crisis is bigger than ever. We’re not on track to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and we’ve already exceeded six of the nine planetary boundaries that keep Earth habitable.

We have an urgent need for speed, scale, and collaboration if we’re to secure a resilient and livable future on this planet. Every day, I have discussions with colleagues across the Swiss and global food innovation ecosystem who are buzzing with ideas and great solutions. But we need to get better at bringing this knowledge together and recognising how collaborative projects can boost our joint impact. Because the issues we’re facing are nuanced. Solutions need to be globally inspired, but locally owned and tailored to each country’s unique challenges.

So where do we start? Here’s my take on three issues where I believe greater collaboration and scaling up the most efficient solutions could really drive measurable impact results. 

  1. Food loss & waste
  2. Unsustainable, unhealthy consumption
  3. Agricultural transformation

Food loss & waste

A third of all produced food goes to waste. Globally, 15.3% (valued at CHF 843 billion) of food never leaves the farm, and in 2019, 17% of total food available landed in rubbish bins, from which it goes on to rot in landfills, producing methane gas and furthering the warming of our planet. 

Impact on environmental and human health

If we stopped wasting food we could reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 6%–8%, while also reducing land degradation and harm to biodiversity and minimising packaging use. And by diverting food waste to where its needed, we could feed the world. Food produced but never eaten would be sufficient to feed two billion people — more than twice the number of undernourished people globally.

How does this issue differ by region?

Hover your cursor over the image to find out.

How to scale our impact: creating circular solutions

I believe that circular solutions can help businesses reduce costs while improving nutritional value and make it easy and attractive for consumers to make more planet-friendly choices. 

How is Switzerland championing this change?

Here are just a few examples of how Swiss food innovators are innovating to develop circular solutions:

Luya

Luya is transforming Okara – or soy pulp – into juicy, plant-based alternatives.

Upgrain

UpGrain is committed to establishing Brewer’s spent grain (BSG) as the protein and fibre source of the future.

ETH Zurich

ETH Zürich is looking at ways to transform food waste into high-protein animal feed.

SmartBreed

SmartBreed closes nutrient cycles and contributes to environmentally friendly food production. Their insects convert nutrient-rich residual streams from the food industry into valuable proteins and fertilizer.

COOS Change Agency

COOS Change Agency helps municipalities to optimise their local food systems by raising awareness, tackling food waste and improving their supply chains.

ALDI SUISSE

ALDI SUISSE uses an intelligent inventory management system to tackle food waste and offers products close to their expiry dates at a reduced price.

EPFL

EPFL is developing intelligent packaging technologies that tackle food waste while keeping consumers safe.

ECOCASCARA

ECOCASCARA turns coffee farming by-products into healthy, ready-to-drink beverages.

Nestlé

Nestlé aims to reduce nutrient loss across the value chain by, for example, using sorghum side streams as a nutritious ingredient for porridge.

State of Fribourg

The State of Fribourg’s agrifood strategy tackles food waste through its flagship program on biomass valorization

The No. 1 Action! But which part of the value chain can have the most impact?

Project Drawdown says reducing food waste is the number one action the world can take to mitigate climate change before 2050 — but change is needed at every stage of the value chain.

From building waste reduction into production processes to designing waste diversion systems for retail and gastronomy, these are interconnected issues that will require co-creation and legislative enablement.

Governments can establish regulations and incentives that encourage waste reduction across the board, retail and gastronomy can practise better inventory management, and farmers can utilise new tech to better match supply with demand. Consumer behaviour change as a result of education and enablement is critical.

What policy change is needed?

  • Clear nationally-owned strategies that set out tangible objectives that everyone in the ecosystem can rally behind — such as Denmark’s ‘Action plan for circular economy’ and its Think Tank on Prevention of Food Loss and Food Waste – ONE\THIRD .
  • Aligned incentives that reward more circular solutions.

2. Unsustainable, unhealthy consumption

When it comes to diet, I believe that a black-and-white approach isn’t helpful. While many of us are aware of the climate impact of animal product consumption and red meat particularly, the conversation isn’t without nuance and solutions need to be tailored effectively to local contexts. The burden of disease is duel — depending on region and access to quality nutrients, people experience chronic diseases related to undernutrition, such as wasting, stunting, and micronutrient deficiencies, and also of diseases related to excessive calorie intake, such as obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. 

Impact on environmental and human health

Today, twenty of the world’s leading meat and milk producers emit more greenhouse gases than entire industrialised countries such as Germany or France. At the same time, about 10% of the global population regularly go to bed hungry, while WHO recently revealed that more than a billion people worldwide are obese. The World Obesity Federation (WOF) released a report that estimates four billion people will be obese in 2035.

How does this issue differ by region?

Hover your cursor over the image to find out.

How to scale our impact: enabling tasty, affordable and convenient solutions 

Open access, publicly-funded research can help us better understand what consumers are looking for, and policymakers can better regulate how foods are advertised, taxed, and distributed. But ultimately the consumer needs access to a diverse range of tasty, affordable and convenient solutions that make it easier to make healthier and more sustainable choices.

Find out more about how to scale solutions in our latest Impact Digest

How is Switzerland championing this change?

Various Valley partners are working across the value chain to develop new solutions in this space. 

Planted

Planted produces delicious meat from alternative proteins, focusing on the perfect bite and only clean ingredients.

Food2050

Food2050 makes it easy for consumers to see how their meal choices affect their climate impact.

Givaudan

Givaudan provides access to an entire ecosystem of experts, technologies and an integrated portfolio to co-create delicious and authentic plant-based food experiences.

Esmë

Esmë uses a unique stream extraction method of fruits to flavour beverages naturally, with a unique taste and less sugar.

Connie's Kitchen

Connie’s Kitchen is reimagining Switzerland’s favorite condiments, kicking out the sugar, and packing their sauces with organic, nutrient-dense ingredients like whole fruits, veggies, and healthy oils.

The Cultured Hub

The Cultured Hub AG is accelerating the development of sustainable proteins, specifically cultured meat, fish, seafood, and precision fermentation products.

Vege'tables

Vege’tables empowers people to consume food that is good for their health and the environment.

Planetary

By harnessing the power microbial fermentation, planetary sustainably produces food ingredients and materials.

Which part of the value chain can have the most impact?

Companies developing new products have a huge role to play here. Startups are great at spotting emerging trends and developing innovative products to meet new consumer needs, while larger companies are able to scale the solutions that have the biggest impact.

At the same, food service and retail colleagues need to draw on the wealth of research available about how to make healthier and greener choices more appealing. 

What policy change is needed?

  • Policy-level commitment to publicly funded research in this space.
  • A clear legal framework for novel foods.
  • Applying research-backed strategies to adjust regulations and incentives to make unhealthy food less appealing and boost the availability of healthier options. 

3. A need for agricultural transformation

Without farmers, there is no food. Innovation around harvesting, farming techniques, and relevant technologies will help us mitigate the impact of agricultural activities on human and planetary health. We need to use more farming practices that tread lightly on our planet, with less use of chemicals and a greater emphasis on soil health — but we must co-create these changes with the farmers who feed us. 

Impact on environmental and human health

Unsustainable farming practices wreak havoc on the environment — degrading soil and harming biodiversity. The rampant use of fertilisers and pesticides in conventional farming today results in adverse health effects in humans. 

How does the issue differ by region?

Hover your cursor over the image to find out.

How to scale our impact: resetting incentives

We need to reform agricultural support so that it’s in line with food system transformation goals.

It’s often prohibitively expensive for small farms to switch to regenerative practices. They need access to new and affordable tech, and we must support them — financially, legislatively, and otherwise — in transitioning to environmentally and biodiversity-friendly farming systems. 

I believe that the global players can do a lot to make it easier for smaller players to make this shift. 

How is Switzerland championing this change?

A number of Valley partners are pioneering new approaches to allow us to feed the world more efficiently:

YASAI

YASAI builds and manages vertical farms based on circular economy approaches to transform food systems.

Ecorobotix

Ecorobotix reduces the environmental impact and costs of modern farming with innovative energy-saving machines, such as precision sprayers.

Gamaya

Gamaya provides digital agronomy solutions to enable early detection of diseases and weeds to reduce potential crop losses.

AgroSustain

AgroSustain produces a natural coating that extends the freshness of crops by more than 20 days.

UMAMI

UMAMI designs bio-natural ecosystems and combines them with state-of-the-art technology to produce pure food.

Which part of the value chain can have the most impact?

Policymakers can repurpose subsidies and the private sector can innovate for more efficient and less damaging farming solutions, but citizen demand and action is what’ll drive these players to act.

What policy change is needed?

  • Sanctioned support for sustainable proteins to encourage the scale-up of planet-friendly farming practices.
  • Repurposed subsidies that help farmers restore the health of the land, rather than providing farmers with fertilisers and pesticides.

Interconnected challenges require a collaborative effort

The hidden costs inherent to our current food systems — climate change, resource degradation, and the unaffordability of healthy diets, to name a few — are a byproduct of market, institutional, and policy failures. Addressing the three key challenges discussed above can help to mitigate these costs and increase agrifood systems’ value to society.

It’ll take collaboration across all parts of the value chain to transform food systems so that we produce within our planetary boundaries, but we must place the focus on the role of the consumer in driving demand for sustainable, affordable, and healthy food options. The other ecosystem players — retail, industry, policymakers, and so on — need to understand what support they need to shift what lands on consumers’ dinner plates and design their policies and products to make it easier for them to make healthier and more sustainable choices. 

The reward? Transforming food systems will benefit not just environmental and human health, but could also serve up economic benefits worth USD 4.5 – 9 trillion each year. What are we waiting for?

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