How agrifood is entering the next phase of its sustainable development

Leading 2023 research explores how agrifood is entering its next sustainable development phase. By examining key insights from past research, the industry learns what it means for sector growth and evolution in 2024 and beyond.

Here, we look at three studies that establish the role of real-world change processes, the merit of these in meeting environmental objectives and the effectiveness of moving towards this approach over future food goals.

Food system diversification not yet leading to sustainable food

In their 2023 perspective paper on food systems, Lamine and Marsden​ analysed developments in UK and French food systems over three periods: agricultural modernisation and intensification based on high inputs (1950-1985), ecological modernisation to address unintended consequences such as environmental problems and overproduction (1985-2008), and the emergence and proliferation of radical niche-innovations (2008-2020).

“One important contribution to better understanding change processes is that the increasing food system diversification in peripheral niches is not yet leading to wider food system transitions in more sustainable directions,” ​Professor Frank Geels, Professor of System Innovation, IMP Innovation, Strategy and Sustainability at Alliance Manchester Business School and Co-Director of the Sustainable Consumption Institute at the University of Manchester, told FoodNavigator.

In addition, another important finding and contribution is that niche innovations that fit better with the existing regime, such as climate-smart agriculture and sustainable intensification, are diffusing faster than radical niche innovations like agroecology, regenerative agriculture, and alternative food networks with short supply chains.

As a result, the research suggests the move away from niche innovations to deeper change mimicked in other industries such as wind, solar-PV, and electric vehicles is not present in agrifood yet. The industry, therefore, needs to place more emphasis on socio-ecological and spatial dimensions to progress the sector towards food system diversification.          

New agrifood practices

The paper by Schiller, Klerkx, Centenno and Poortvliet more deeply explored the emergence and diffusion of agroecology in Nicaragua. The country, Geels said “is one of the world’s leading countries in this innovation requiring substantial changes in farming practices”.

Focusing on knowledge flows over 40 years, the 2023 research paper ​shows how new ideas and practices emerged through local experimentation and trial-and-error initiatives in the first period (1986-1997).

The study then showed that knowledge and best practices stabilised in the second period (1988-2006) through systematisation, standardisation and codification. They spread more widely in the third period, between 2007 and 2022, through national congresses and alliances between firms, policymakers, and civil society organisations and were anchored in regulations and standards.

“The paper deepens our understanding of the emergence and stabilisation of radical innovations, showing that different actors play varying roles in subsequent periods,” ​said Geels. It also shows that intermediary actors such as the Nicaraguan Environmental Movement and the Alliance for Agroecology play especially significant roles in connecting and brokering disparate actors and learning experiences to foster new agrifood practices.

Moving away from animal agriculture

A 2023 research study​ by Mylan, Andrews and Maye focuses on the emerging ‘protein’ transition, where animal-derived foods are replaced with alternative proteins. They analysed the development of four alternative protein innovations, ranging from Quorn to cultured meat, over the past three decades and explain the recent acceleration of their diffusion. “Many of the environmental concerns associated with currently dominant food systems stem from animal-based agriculture,” ​confirmed Geels.

Finding an increasing corporate engagement with alternative protein development and diffusion, the researchers stated this “could potentially be a sign for a wider corporate reorientation of regime incumbents, due to increasing pressures on the animal agriculture system because of a scientific consensus and societal awareness of the links between climate change and animal-produce intensive diets”.

Despite these pressures for change, political, regulatory, and cultural barriers remain and unevenly affect the prospects of the four innovations in the analysis, Geels noted. “The paper shows a partial destabilisation of the currently dominant animal food regime and a tentative reorientation across Europe and the US,”​ Geels added.

However, a potential alternative ‘protein’ transition is still in its early phases. It, therefore, hints at the importance of niche-regime interactions and their timing. Geels said: “To what extent does regime destabilisation lead to a rapid transition, which is partly based on the development of alternatives?”. ​The current barriers to alternative protein technologies, impact the possibility to advance the animal-based “protein transition”.