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We are what we eat: a holistic and human-centered approach to agricultural innovation

Food is the fabric that binds our society. It shapes our childhoods, unifies our families, and becomes a source of comfort. The exchange of ideas and culture is often reflected through food: from the myth of Marco Polo bringing pasta back across the Silk Road to modern day fusion cuisine. Since food shapes so much of who we are, the values we strive for in our food system should reflect the same values we strive for in society. In this post, we propose steps that can be taken to foster a more holistic and human-centered approach to agricultural innovation.

we are what we eat a human centered approach to agricultural innovation

Promote Biodiversity

The world currently gets ~64% of its calories from just four key crops. There is a tremendous opportunity for greater genetic biodiversity that could improve how we grow food in challenging environmental conditions.

A roadblock to biodiversity in our food system is the divide between crops that benefited from agricultural innovation and those that benefited less. A clear example is the stagnation of wheat and rice yield improvement compared to corn and soybeans. The cause is complex and results from climate change in some regions, increased biotic and abiotic stress, socio-economic factors, and policy decisions. Whereas corn and soybean productivity improved from decades of sustained research funding and the adoption of trait technologies, wheat and rice lagged behind. It led to falling profitability, increasingly limited tools, and an inability to respond to consumer demands. This same paradigm confronts new crop domestication programs, despite their great genetic diversity.

To promote greater genetic diversity in food and agriculture, we need to:

  1. Minimize counterproductive, rhetoric-based food labelling
  2. Lower barriers—especially regulatory—to innovation adoption for cutting-edge technologies to reach emerging crops; and
  3. Explore new business models that can quickly shift production and infrastructure without needing to reach large commodity scales.

Ensure Equitability

As rising inequality becomes a more pressing global issue, our food system should be increasingly vigilant at safeguarding accessibility to nutrition, value creation/sharing, and long-term resilience. Two imminent challenges are rising food insecurity in low-income countries and diet-related health problems from low-value calories. One paradigm shift is to frame food in terms of affordable nutrition rather than access to calories. In other words: incentivizing a food system based on value instead of volume.

For this dramatic transformation to occur, we must prioritize quality and nutritional density. Our food system is optimized for volume, transportability and shelf life (which collectively led to deteriorating nutritional quality). There is little motivation to improve quality among some of the most important staple crops—leading to another vicious cycle of innovation retreat.

Adopting this new framework requires rethinking what is equitable in terms of sharing value. While some segments of our food system are connected from producer to consumer (e.g. high-value fruits), much of agriculture is fragmented. Actors along the supply chain often end up as competitors in a race to the bottom. A willingness and commitment to more equitable distribution of value can increase the reactivity and durability of the supply chain and also offer access to better nutrition for consumers.

Broaden our definition of sustainability

For growers, sustainability is more than a buzz phrase. Increasing climatic volatility negatively impacts how crops grow, and the livelihoods of producers. Reducing CO2 and other greenhouse gases is a critical part of addressing these challenges. ZeaKal’s PhotoSeed™ trait increases photosynthetic capacity and carbon capture, making plants into stronger carbon sinks. However, our sustainability mandate goes beyond carbon.

To create a truly resilient and adaptable food system, we believe the following factors should also be taken into account:

Sustainable Resources

While our sustainability impact begins with carbon capture in the field, the benefits also translate throughout the supply chain. In soybeans, for instance, the additional carbon capture enabled by PhotoSeed is stored as more oil and protein, increasing the overall energy and nutritional value of the crop. End users then have the opportunity to unlock additional sustainability benefits, such as needing less feed (reduces CO2 footprint of transport and storage) and improving feed conversion, all while utilizing a more sustainable feedstock.

Sustainable Economics

A critical and often overlooked component in sustainability is the economics of agriculture. In commodity down cycles, the majority of U.S. row crop farmers are not profitable in the absence of subsidies. In up cycles, growers face rising input prices that squeeze margins. We aim to make the economics of agriculture sustainable for growers while making nutrition more affordable for consumers. It also means focusing on innovation that adds margin and elevates the value of crops. Our NewType of agriculture envisions a more harmonious relationship with stakeholders to share in the value of rebuilding a better food system.

The benefits of a holistic and human-centered approach to agricultural innovation are clear. By building a NewType of agriculture, we can future-proof our food system, make affordable nutrition more accessible, and take better care of our planet.