Innovative ideas for smarter food systems

Innovative ideas for smarter food systems

November 07, 2019

Innovative ideas for smarter food systems

Climate change poses major challenges, such as loss of land and greenhouse gas emissions, which need to be addressed by developing solutions tailored to local needs.

The solution to climate change challenges is to be found in food system innovation. A special net that retains water and organic carbon in Africa, studies to understand the impact of the reduction of livestock farming in the Netherlands, and ideas to shift agriculture to completely new models in France: these are just three of the examples reported in three articles published in the journal Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, as part of a special series dedicated to food systems that focus in particular on fighting climate change (Understanding Trade-Offs and Synergies within Climate-Smart Food Systems). The transformation of current food systems will also be the focus of several sessions to be held during the tenth edition of the International Forum on Food and Nutrition organized by the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition Foundation (BCFN). Business, innovation and the enhancement of local communities will be the main themes of the meeting, to be held on December 3, 2019 in Milan.

Special nets to avoid losing soil

In Africa, effective solutions are needed to innovate food systems and improve crop yields starting with land difficult to cultivate: in fact, 21.5% of continental Africa is made up of sandy soil that does not retain water. The amount of organic carbon in soil is generally low and these terrains are also found in arid and semi-desert regions where it rarely rains, mainly as a result of ongoing climate change. The more traditional approach would be to use more fertilizers and to increase irrigation, but these options are not easily accessible to most African farmers. Hence the idea of applying, just below the ground surface, special carbon and water-retaining membranes: according to simulations, this relatively new technology could produce remarkable results if sufficiently widespread. The authors of the study included in the above-mentioned special series explained that in a scenario of widespread use of the system, corn production could increase by 15-50 million tons per season in 20 years, whereas the carbon 'sequestered' in soil could reach 15 tons in approximately 22 years. We have the necessary conditions for sustainability, although there are still obstacles to their implementation, such as high initial investment costs and a lack of awareness of the effectiveness of the system among farmers and policy makers. 

European solutions 

The challenge of achieving sustainable and “climate smart” food systems in Europe has a completely different meaning than it may have in Africa. This is clearly shown in the article dedicated to the Netherlands. In this case, the focus is on the potential consequences of reducing livestock farming and of other targeted actions in a country that has the most productive and efficient agricultural sector in Europe per unit of soil, but which has to address issues such as high greenhouse gas emissions and the reduction of biodiversity. Reducing or drastically changing livestock farming practices could significantly contribute to reducing emissions, but the impact of such approaches in a European country, and on a supranational scale, must also be carefully assessed. After having analyzed European agricultural systems, the authors concluded that the solution to global problems related to climate change, biodiversity loss, and local or regional eutrophication must come from a European rather than a national approach. 

Connected and reconnected food systems

The third article in the special series, instead, highlights the comparison of two different food system models in France. One scenario (model 1) involves continuing with the current trends of intensification, specialization and opening to international markets in the European country, whereas the second one (model 2) is aimed at a radical change toward farming techniques based on crop diversification and rotation, reconnecting crop and livestock farming, and reducing animal protein in the human diet. The CO2 balance based on gas emissions and carbon 'sequestered' in soil seems to be in favor of model 2. As the authors explain, “in terms of strategy for limiting CO2 emissions by agriculture, the priority target should therefore be placed on the reduction of transport of feed, synthetic fertilizer manufacture and fossil fuel consumption for mechanization”.

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