By Holly Foster (Program Associate for the Just Rural Transition at Meridian Institute)

This blog series, entitled Voices in AgTech, highlights the people and organisations whose work has contributed to increased awareness of the role of solar-powered agricultural technologies. In this second blog article in the series, we hear from our new Efficiency for Access Programme Partner, The Just Rural Transition. JRT is an initiative bringing together food producers, governments, businesses, investors, civil society, rural and Indigenous People to champion equitable solutions to food systems challenges.

How is innovation key to achieving a just rural transition?

We have been innovating our food systems for millennia. From ploughing to refrigeration to digitalised resource management, the pace of innovation has steeply increased over the decades. Yet our global population is also growing, and we face the unprecedented challenge of feeding approximately 8.5 billion people by 2030, all while combating climate change, environmental degradation, and inequity.

Innovation is key for transforming our food systems and achieving the objectives of the Paris Agreement and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It includes innovative technologies like the recent hydroponic farming plans introduced in Morocco and solar water pump installations in Kenya to increase the efficiency of water resources. It also involves innovative farming and livestock keeping methods, such as the use of seaweed as a feed additive for cattle to reduce methane emissions by up to 98%.

However, we fundamentally require innovations in our institutions, business models, and the policy processes that shape our food systems worldwide. We need new, innovative, and inclusively-designed ways of working which allow collaboration and cooperation between different sectors to ensure that our food systems are just and resilient in the face of shared, global challenges.

Scaling investment in agricultural innovation across the value chain

To unlock the potential of agricultural innovation, we must significantly increase investment in new technologies and solutions that contribute towards positive social and environmental outcomes in the agri-food sector. Governments and the private sector play a vital role in this, and yet even with countries spending over $700 billion per year of public funds in support of this sector globally, only 6% goes towards research and other public goods. In the Global South, approximately $60 billion per year of public and private funds is invested in innovation, with less than 7% explicitly aiming to improve environmental outcomes and half aligning with social goals. Increased investment in agricultural research, development, and technology will support the well-being of our people and planet and have the potential to result in substantial economic benefits, such as annual return rates of up to 60% in the US for research alone.

But increased government spending on innovation is not enough, we also need innovative policies that accelerate the uptake of sustainable practices by farmers. The UK policy reforms for farming incentives, for example, aim to better compensate producers using sustainable farming methods that protect biodiversity and soil health. There is a strong case for policymakers to rethink and repurpose current domestic policies around the world as, according to a 2022 report from IFPRI and the World Bank, redirecting about $70 billion per year would result in a net benefit of over $2 trillion in twenty years.

Government policy reform also creates an enabling environment for increased private sector investment in inclusive agricultural innovations that enhance livelihoods while improving productivity and resource efficiency. Private sector investments can play a critical role in leveraging technologies to minimise food and agricultural product loss by investing in better on-farm storage and transport infrastructure, providing skill training, and facilitating mentorship programmes.

Public-private partnerships are one policy option that can help unlock private sector investment in innovation and inclusive ventures. These partnerships can be used to leverage public funds for innovation, enhance uptake and efficiency, and increase the rate and scope of its dissemination. This is evident in the Philippines, where the government oversaw private investment in a portfolio of six coconut farms to grow a hybrid crop requiring one-quarter of its original land. The investing company engaged with Indigenous groups in the area for a year to build consensus, and it now employs over 1,200 Indigenous People who bring knowledge of local environmental conditions. The venture has resulted in increased production profits and a growing entrepreneurial ecosystem around the farms.

A just rural transition

Looking to 2030, we must ensure that government and private sector decisions on where and how to fund innovation reflect the actual, manifold needs of food producers. The resulting technologies and solutions must be accessible, affordable, and enhance resilience and equity. Above all, their choices must be serving the most vulnerable and marginalised, particularly those farming on the frontlines of climate change.

There remains a substantial global opportunity to work together on concrete, ambitious solutions for agricultural innovation this decade. A just transition towards resilient and equitable food systems is only attainable through collaboration across all countries, governments, and sectors. As promising initiatives and pledges such as AIM for Climate and the Breakthrough Agenda take centre stage this year, we will all have the opportunity to support innovative climate action and achieve a just rural transition where no one is left behind.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Holly Foster is a Program Associate for the Just Rural Transition at Meridian Institute. Based in the UK, Holly has a background in Social Anthropology and works to support sustainable, equitable, and globally collaborative efforts to transform agriculture and land-use systems.

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