The role of Innovation, Impact and Frontline Agricultural Nations in driving global food system transformation

By Christina Senn-Jakobsen,
CEO, Swiss Food & Nutrition Valley

“I believe it’s time for us to shift our mindset and recognise how each nation can play to its unique strengths to scale innovations and boost our joint impact.”

In April 2024 I took part in the Swissnex in Brazil Future of Food Bootcamp. We spent one week each in Sao Paulo and Rio visiting universities, innovation hubs, startups and large companies to meet and learn about the Brazilian food ecosystem.

The experience blew open my food transformation world.

Exploring a food system that is so starkly different from Switzerland and the other countries we typically work with got me thinking about how we’re always talking about the same players: the food agritech innovation nations.

I couldn’t be prouder of what we’ve accomplished so far in the Valley ecosystem. But I also believe it’s time for us to shift our mindset and recognise how each nation can play to its unique strengths to scale innovations and boost our joint impact.

Innovation Nations, Impact Nations, and Frontline Agricultural Nations

Achieving the necessary food system transformation is a three step process:

  1. Identify and understand the problems
  2. Build the solutions
  3. Implement at scale

I believe that we often get stuck in step two. We know what the problems are, and in many cases, we already have the solutions. But we now need to figure out how to move onto step three and begin to drive scaling and impact in a meaningful way.

My trip to Brazil made me realise that there are three types of nations involved in the global food system transformation: Innovation Nations, Impact Nations, and Frontline Agricultural nations. Each has distinct needs and unique contributions.

Hover over the images below to find out more about each category.

Of course, some nations may fit into more than one of these categories. The United States, for example, could be seen as both an Impact Nation and an Innovation Nation. But they help us to consider the various roles that different nations can play – and most importantly – how these nations interact. 

So why does this matter? Today, 80% of global emissions come from the G20 countries, which account for only 10% of the world’s countries. That’s not even to mention the devastation associated with the other food system challenges, such as hunger and nutrition balance, depleted soils and biodiversity loss. 71% of farmers say climate change is already having a big impact on their farm, and one in six farmers have identified income losses greater than 25%. In 2023, there was over $21 billion in crop losses due to severe weather in the US alone.

When it comes to the impact of climate change, Frontline Agricultural Nations are disproportionately affected. Geopolitical conflict makes trading next to impossible, extreme weather is destroying crop yields, and farmers are struggling to produce. This means that smallholder farmers are often paying the price for challenges caused by actions beyond their control.

Different starting points, complementary strengths

To tackle these global issues, we need to work collaboratively. And to collaborate effectively, we need to better understand each nation’s goals and meet them where they are.

I think we can frame it in a similar way to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Frontline Agricultural Nations are often rightly focused on ensuring that their population’s fundamental needs are met: enabling access to safe and nutritious food. Impact nations tend to focus on strengthening their economies, while many innovation nations are shifting their focus to purpose-driven action to drive better human and planetary health.

So how does this help us? Take Switzerland. We’re a small nation, but a big food innovation nation. Even if we transformed our food systems completely, our efforts alone wouldn’t be enough to move the needle on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) on a global scale. But if an Impact Nation like Brazil or China were to transform its food systems to become more sustainable – there is huge potential for impact.

Impact Nations are looking for solutions that can both strengthen their economies and ensure that everyone continues to have access to safe and nutritious food. To make this happen, impact nations need to have access to the latest innovations and find ways to scale them in an affordable way. Frontline Agricultural Nations, who are the most impacted by climate change, would ultimately benefit from this. They can draw on these scaled innovations and adapt them to reflect their local contexts – strengthening their economies, building climate change resilience, and contributing to global food security, too. Nigeria, Ghana, and Ivory Coast together, for example, produce about 86% of the world’s yam supply and the region also provides more than half of the world’s cocoa, often produced by smallholder farmers.

Zooming in

Let’s take a closer look at what this looks like in practice at country level.  

Innovation Nations

To boost their impact, Innovation Nations need to break out of their bubbles and actively look for ways to collaborate more closely with Impact Nations and Frontline Agricultural Nations. 

A great example here is technology to increase crop yields that both reduces harmful pesticides and greenhouse gas emissions, while increasing a farm’s profitability. When a technology is scaled in an Impact Nation, the return on investment becomes more affordable, ultimately increasing the accessibility of the solution in Frontline Agricultural Nations – and its global impact.


Its strength
Switzerland works with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to advance sustainable agriculture and food innovation, both domestically and internationally. Swiss universities and institutions like EPFL in Lausanne and ETH in Zurich collaborate closely with the private sector to pioneer breakthroughs in ingredients innovation, digitalisation of food chains, water technology, new farming systems – all of which have profound implications for the global agrifood landscape.

The opportunity
Switzerland already ranks highly as an Innovation Nation. We’ve seen great success in helping small startups to scale up through collaboration with large retailers like ALDI SUISSE. Now it’s time to think bigger. There is a huge opportunity to work with impact nations to drive change at scale.


Its strength
Often touted as “the best place in the world for food innovation,” Singapore has cemented itself as an alt protein hub. The city-state has high engagement from its government in the form of funding and legislation, which has enabled the region to pioneer advancements with cultivated proteins, precision fermentation and more.

The opportunity
Misinformation around the future of sustainable protein abounds, but players like The Good Food Institute are working to address this with clear, understandable messaging strategies. Valley partner ADM has a plant-based innovation lab and research hub in Singapore designed to ramp up alternative protein development and production across the Asian region. Bühler, Givaudan, ETH and many other Swiss actors are also present.

Impact Nations 

Impact Nations are big producers and exporters. With their main focus placed on strengthening their economies, they need innovation to help them continue to generate revenue from their high-value commodities, but in a way that also reduces their climate impact. 

Impact Nations like Brazil and the US could, for example, potentially reduce cattle methane emissions through feed additives and supplements, like those developed by Valley partner dsm-firmenich or ADM. Brazil and China also produce 20 million tonnes and 35 million pounds of food waste respectively. Drawing on innovations like Valley partner AgroSustain’s pre- and post-harvest solutions could help Impact Nations direct these lost resource costs back into their economies.


Its strength
Brazil is a large country and an even larger impact country — it’s a top-5 producer of 34 commodities and is the largest net exporter in the world. The country is a big producer of beef and other high-value foods like orange juice. Brazil is responsible for nearly 80% of orange juice marketed globally.

Its opportunity 
Brazil has a decarbonisation strategy in place, but it doesn’t include agrifood in its plan. This is surprising when you consider that its food sector accounts for 74% of the country’s total emissions. Adapting this strategy could bring us a huge step closer to achieving the SDGs.


Its strength
China is the world’s largest producer (and consumer) of food. Recently, the country issued various agricultural policies and strategies to promote rural vitalisation and low-carbon development of the agricultural sector.

Its opportunity
China’s growing middle class has led to increased food consumption, particularly of meat. The country has had significant improvements in agricultural productivity over recent decades, but maintaining this productivity will be difficult due to climate change and decades of unsustainable farm management practices. Improving soils, minimising food waste, and addressing an agricultural labor shortage will be essential.

Frontline Agricultural Nations 

Frontline Agricultural Nations need access to adaptive strategies to manage and mitigate the effects of climate change, and knowledge and innovation to manage agrifood systems in a more sustainable way to ensure global food security.

Self-sufficient systems such as those developed by Valley partner Mabewo produce electricity and water themselves, protecting natural resources. These types of innovations alongside the implementation of drought-resistant crops could help Frontline Agricultural Nations protect their productive capacities and ensure food security.


Its strength
Agriculture is the main source of rural livelihoods in Afghanistan. Livestock (mainly cattle, sheep, and chicken) make up the largest part of its economy. Wheat and rice are its main agricultural crops.

The opportunity
Agriculture makes up about ¼ of its GDP, but according to the UN, 9 out of 10 people in Afghanistan do not have enough to eat. Rising temperatures, extreme weather, and diminished water supply are impacting the country’s productive capacity. There is an urgent need for effective watershed management mechanisms, drought resistant crops, and resources for its livestock and dairy sectors.


Its strength 
Ghana is rich in natural resources, known particularly for its commercially grown cacao. The plant is grown on more than half of the country’s arable lands and is a significant source of revenue. The soil and climate also favour a wide range of crops, such as yams, rice, millet, and shea nuts. 

The opportunity
Agriculture is responsible for almost ⅕ of its GDP, which adds to Ghana’s climate change vulnerability. By implementing solutions to build climate resilience, the impact of extreme weather events and localised disasters on Ghana’s inhabitants could be reduced.

It’s time for a mindset shift

The Swiss love innovation. But we need a mindset shift. We have the solutions we need. It’s now time to explore what drives each country to take action to allow us to drive food system transformation and impact at scale.

It is not our job to ‘convert’ people. We know that current global agrifood systems are a major driver of climate change and ecological devastation. We must learn to meet each other on shared ground, understand the different contexts we’re working in, and unite in our shared objective of securing a livable future on this Earth. 

The Valley is speaking with colleagues at the FAO to determine how best to make Swiss innovation available at scale, but we need each country to play its part.

There is an interdependency among us all. We’re ultimately all part of the same food system. We must work together across borders to drive forward the change we want to see and make sure we leave no one behind.

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