Opinion: Science, innovation and incentives will transform global diets and food systems

Each day we hear grim reports of food supplies disrupted by war and weather, of famine stalking people across Africa and the Middle East, of families struggling to keep pace with skyrocketing grocery prices.

What we don’t hear are the inspirational accounts of the many efforts under way to ensure sufficient, nourishing food for the world’s eight billion citizens — even in the face of climate change — without destroying the planet that sustains us.

Those stories, and a recognition of the major role that innovation and technology will play in building sustainable food systems, feed my optimism. Government institutions, academia, philanthropists, NGOs and private companies like mine are working independently and collaboratively to achieve a common goal: getting food to the 811 million people who regularly go to bed hungry, and improving the poor diets linked to suffering and premature death.

World Food Day inspires a number of platforms to share these stories of hope. At events ranging from the FAO Science Innovation Forum in Rome to the Borlaug Dialogue in Des Moines, people are spotlighting the steps being taken to integrate the long-siloed concepts of nutrition and health into a food system that is already vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. This coalescence is crucial as we come to understand how climate change threatens to undermine crop yields, reduce the nutritional content of staple foods and expose another 78 million people to chronic hunger.

World Food Day also provides occasion to share the ways in which scientific innovations, including biotechnology, cellular agriculture and various digital tools, are already working to reduce the environmental footprint of farming and food production, which account for more than a third of global greenhouse gas emissions.

At Pairwise, we’re leading in the use of innovative tools like gene editing to develop more nutritious salad greens, seedless berries and other healthful foods that fit our lifestyles. As these improved fresh foods begin to hit the market next year, we believe they’ll encourage consumers to eat more of the fruits and vegetables that support climate goals and better health.

Though we all know we should eat more fruits and vegetables, there are many reasons why we don’t. Technology and innovation can support our good choices by making nutritious food more convenient, longer lasting and better tasting. And that’s not inconsequential, considering that more than a million Americans die annually from diet-related diseases, such as Type 2 diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.

While we’re one of the first companies to take a consumer-based approach to innovation through gene editing, we’re not alone. It’s exciting to witness other technological advances, such as the production of alternative protein sources and the use of precision fermentation, that can help us shift to plant-forward diets. These tactics promise to give us healthier, less environmentally impactful versions of the foods we already know and love.

The federal government can facilitate this transformation by providing food tech start-ups with an incentive to invest in research and development that aims to give consumers the tasty, convenient produce and fresh whole foods they’ll choose to eat. This should include science-based policy decisions around food-tech enabling tools such as CRISPR and other key technologies in the food-tech space. A vibrant and inclusive innovation environment is especially important to ensure innovation in fresh foods that are culturally relevant to the communities that are disproportionately affected by diet-related diseases.

Fortunately, governments around the world are showing a new commitment to address food and nutrition insecurity, making significant pledges at last year’s UN Food Systems Summit, COP-26, and Nutrition for Growth Summit. The United States alone pledged some $30 billion, acutely aware that hunger and diet-related illnesses are increasing within its own borders. The Biden-Harris administration also recently convened the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health, which hadn’t met in 50 years.

But addressing hunger and nutrition isn’t the sole purview of government agencies and NGOs. Climate change and a global pandemic have introduced new challenges and complexities. We must collaborate more effectively to identify and adopt broad strategic solutions that engage multiple sectors of our global society. Everyone can play a part — international agencies, universities, consumers, think tanks and the private sector.

Over the past few years, we saw how science helped us navigate a deadly global pandemic. Similarly, 21st century innovation can guide us to food system solutions that pair science with humanitarian goals. By working together, and embracing technology, we can transform agriculture, our food systems, our diets, our health and ultimately, our relationship with the world itself. And we can enjoy what we’re eating in the process.

Tom Adams, Ph.D., co-founded Pairwise and serves as chief executive officer, and brings over 25 years of leadership experience heading up biotechnology for global companies. Formerly a faculty member at Texas A&M University, Adams holds a Ph.D. in microbiology and plant science from Michigan State University and a BS in botany and plant pathology from Oregon State University.

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