The massive global food system generates a third of the world's GDP, but it is also the biggest contributor of biodiversity loss while creating more than a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions. It employs 40% of the world's population, but its impact is uneven, and 65% of the adults employed in food and agriculture live in poverty. Bain & Company's new blueprint, Food System Transformation: The Time Is Now, suggests five actions companies can take today to create more sustainable food systems for tomorrow.
"Our food system challenges have become more urgent over the last two years, with supply chain issues driven by the pandemic, a looming food crisis propelled by Russia's war in Ukraine and an increase of natural disasters caused by climate change," said Jenny Davis-Peccoud, co-leader of Bain & Company's Sustainability & Responsibility practice. "The time to act is now. We have fewer than nine annual planting cycles to shift to a sustainable, inclusive and healthy food system in time to meet key milestones of the Paris Climate Accord and the UN Sustainable Development Goals."
The three paradoxes of food systems transformation
- Consumers say they want to buy sustainable, but often don't.
Bain & Company's research shows that while consumers want to value sustainable food options, in reality that is not what makes it into shopping carts. Customers are willing to pay some premium for healthier and sustainable options, but there is a limit and many sustainable alternatives seem to be priced well above it, meaning they aren't selected at scale. The consumer products that win are the ones that simultaneously satisfy consumers' taste and performance expectations, have clearly articulated sustainability benefits and are sold at a reasonable premium.
- Farmers would change, but often can't.
Regenerative agriculture can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions by rebuilding soil's organic matter, pulling carbon from the atmosphere and sequestering it in the ground. However, the shift often leads to higher expenses and lower yields during the transition phase. While farmers may want to make the change, the perceived risk is high and adoption has not been at a scale fast enough.
- The market should support the transformation, but often doesn't.
Food systems have been built on a goal of scale and efficiency with expected common standards to feed 7.9 billion people. But what is gained in efficiency, is often lost in sustainability. Additionally, agriculture products are "disassembled" and fragmented, which adds a level of complexity to sustainable practices. For example, soybean meal may be replaced with a sustainable alternative, but that doesn't address the soy oil that is also harvested from the bean.
Five actions companies can take to accelerate progress today
Shift consumer consumption.
There is an opportunity for brands to provide sustainable options, educate and inspire consumers to shift behavior. Bain's research shows brands that are seen as sustainable grow two to five times faster than their peers, and the 10% of brands for which sustainability is a core element of value grow fastest of all.
Make regenerative agriculture more attainable for farmers.
Corporations can accelerate the needed shift in agricultural practice by providing stability and financial assistance for farmers. Food companies should consider how they can support and incent their farmer suppliers to adopt regenerative practices at scale through premium pricing as well as facilitated access to technical assistance and financing. This could potentially include connecting farmers to carbon credit markets.
Improve or reinvent supply chains.
For some commodities, the existing value chain carries such high environmental costs, inequity and labor abuses that the only way to transform the system is to reinvent it. This often means creating value chains that are shorter, more transparent and capable of capturing more of the product's economic value where it is grown. These new chains depend on key market participants—from corporate buyers to governments and NGOs—working together in innovative ways.
Focus on regions ripe with opportunity for progress
Food insecurity is a significant issue in Africa where already low farming yields are expected to decrease further due to the effects of climate change. Farmer allied enterprises, often SMEs, can serve as linchpins to build more resilient local food systems that enhance smallholder farmer livelihoods, create jobs and provide more affordable nutrition. Corporates can play a key role in scaling these enterprises by anchoring market demand, and we are beginning to see traction from public-private partnerships that prioritize support and financing to these enterprises.
Integrate technology to accelerate innovation
The global food system is built on standardized commodities and a foundation of large, established corporations. We are at the cusp of technology and experimentation, often brought about by innovative ventures. The industry needs to evaluate when and how to partner with such ventures, to invest its own R&D spending and to take advantage of new technologies.