Food security may not seem like a pressing issue for the Davos set — except when it threatens to destabilize the planet.

The World Economic Forum declared Wednesday “Future Food” day, when delegates were served vegetarian and locally sourced food to highlight the coming challenge of feeding a world of 10 billion people. The inconvenient message: We may need 60% more food to keep pace with demographic change, even as climate change disrupts croplands everywhere. Business as usual won’t cut it. Today, more than 10% of the world’s population remains undernourished, and the things we’re doing to feed the world may one day starve the planet. Exhibit A: Food production accounts for just over one-quarter of global emissions. Adding concern: global food loss and waste generate about 8% of annual greenhouse gas emissions, according to the FAO. It’s a troubling paradox.

Almost everywhere food is grown, there are stories of supply disruption: fields too wet to plant, weather-damaged orchards, and rain-starved vineyards. But food shortages are likely to hit poorer parts of the world much more severely than richer ones. In particular, global warming will have a badly negative impact on nutrition in Africa and Asia. It’s difficult to overstate the ripple effects of food shortages. Notably, it could lead to an increase in cross-border migration, which even at current levels is already redefining the political landscape in places like North American and Europe.

At one lunch today, a few dozen food experts ate mixed salad with seeds, mushroom risotto, and apple pie, and tried to figure out why innovation is falling short. Abi Ramanan, an AI specialist, noted: “agriculture has been mechanized but not digitalized.” She co-founded ImpactVision, a San Francisco-based company which applies hyperspectral imaging technology to improve food supply chains.

Agtech is hot in Silicon Valley, but even still agriculture isn’t attracting the scale of research funding – or venture capital – it needs for breakthroughs. There are exceptions, of course. Cellular agriculture is a fascinating next-step to plant-based alternatives. It uses cultures to build cell-based products outside of an organism that tastes like the real thing, be it meat, eggs, dairy or even byproducts like leather. While investment in agri-food innovation and more sustainable farming practices has climbed to nearly US$5 billion in the last five years, it still lags substantially behind cleantech.

Instead, governments spend $300 billion on food subsidies, with very little focused on transformation. “Farmers don’t need subsidies. They need support for investments,” said Wiebe Draijer, chair of Rabobank. But as big planning schemes for food have always shown, it can’t be centrally planned. It depends hugely on local farmers and consumers – the original and ultimate value chain

It doesn’t help that the world’s farmers can be a cautious lot, perhaps because their risk appetite is consumed by weather and climate disruptions. Then there’s price-obsessed consumers who aren’t willing to pay for innovation. Matt Barnard, the CEO of Plenty, said consumers everywhere want only “pleasure and convenience.” In some countries, insurers and banks are helping farmers transition their operations so they can invest in new technologies. But a more ambitious approach is needed. At the main forum, Ramon Laguarta, CEO of Pepsico, pushed for a bolder global approach, with five or six ag tech hubs – “connected with real farmers.” It may be the sort of scale needed to match the scale of challenge.

Until then, we may need to focus on that other thing we do with the land – forestry. At the Forum today, Klaus Schwab unveiled an initiative with the world’s leading governments and businesses to plant, grow and restore one trillion trees. Nature-based solutions that lock up carbon in forests, grasslands and wetlands can provide up to one-third of the emissions reductions required by 2030 to meet the Paris Agreement targets, according to the Forum’s calculations.

But here too, we run into a paradox where protecting the food supply and cutting greenhouse emissions collide. Planting large numbers of trees can push crops and livestock onto less productive land. That in turn could raise food prices. Regardless of the math, the economics of food will be back at Davos.

For insights into how the coming skills revolution can transform agriculture, read our recent RBC report Farmer 4.0.


John Stackhouse is a nationally bestselling author and one of Canada’s leading voices on innovation and economic disruption. He is senior vice-president in the Office of the CEO at Royal Bank of Canada, leading the organization’s research and thought leadership on economic, technological and social change. Previously, he was editor-in-chief of the Globe and Mail and editor of Report on Business. He is a senior fellow at the C.D. Howe Institute and the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy and sits on the boards of Queen’s University, the Aga Khan Foundation of Canada and the Literary Review of Canada. His latest book, "Planet Canada: How Our Expats Are Shaping the Future", explores the untapped resource of the millions of Canadians who don’t live here but exert their influence from afar.

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