Professor Christopher B. Barrett, leading the new Agrifood Systems Technologies and Innovations Outlook initiative, addresses a plenary session at the World Food Forum in Rome Oct. 20.

Cornell to co-lead UN agency’s new agrifood initiative

Ideas that sprouted from a pre-pandemic panel discussion at Cornell now inform an initiative aimed to meet looming global food needs in a healthy, equitable, resilient and sustainable manner.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations introduced its Agrifood Systems Technologies and Innovations Outlook (ATIO) initiative at the World Food Forum in Rome Oct. 20. ATIO will be an FAO flagship publication published biennially for the U.N. group to disseminate information on science, technology and innovation in agrifood systems – which include food production, storage, post-harvest handling, transportation, processing, distribution and consumption – around the world.

“I am convinced that the launch of this innovative initiative will guarantee that essential data and evidence needed for the transformation of our global agrifood systems becomes accessible to all those who need it, particularly decision-makers,” said Qu Dongyu, director-general of the FAO.

Professor Mario Herrero discusses the new ATIO initiative at the World Food Forum plenary session in Rome Oct. 20.  Provided. 

Christopher B. Barrett, the Stephen B. and Janice G. Ashley Professor in Cornell’s Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, will lead the project.

“The world needs to accelerate the rate of transformation of agrifood systems,” said Barrett, also a faculty member in the Cornell Brooks School of Public Policy, at the Rome forum’s plenary session.

“Science, technology and innovation are absolutely central to that,” he said. “It’s as much institutional and policy innovation, as it is new cultivars or better machinery or clever digital methods. It’s the bundling of the social and technical together … to reduce [climate change] pressure on the planet while improving equity, health [and] sustainability outcomes.”

In December 2019, more than 20 business, government, nonprofit and scientific experts from around the world convened an expert panel at Cornell Tech in New York City to assess research linking agrifood systems and the world’s future needs. The group outlined seven major suggestions in a report.

A year later, the group’s report – “Socio-Technical Innovation Bundles for Agrifood Systems Transformation,” funded by the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability, where Barrett is also a senior faculty fellow – was published in Nature Sustainability, in collaboration with its sibling journal, Nature Food. The report is now available as an open access book.

The report caught the attention of the United Nations and the FAO, and a Cornell group – which included Mario Herrero, the Nancy and Peter Meinig Family Investigator in the Life Sciences in Global Development (CALS) and a Cornell Atkinson scholar; and Daniel Mason-D’Croz, senior research associate in Global Development, as well as multiple staff and students – agreed to design a new effort at global scale.

Cornell University Library, the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business and CALS are partners in the effort.

Herrero joined Barrett at the plenary forum and served as a discussion panelist following the FAO announcement. He said this new report helps assess global food production from a future environmental and social point of view.

Collecting and collating this information will help world leaders to grasp the future’s systemic nature of agrifood systems, he said.

“We’re really trying to establish the future that we want,” Herrero said. “Will new pathways for feeding the world include a range of alternative proteins, robotics, novel ways of reducing emissions or reducing waste? We need to analyze these kinds of options in future agrifood systems scenarios.

“From the scientific perspective, we do not have the sophistication in terms of modeling tools to deal with many of these impacts,” Herrero said. “So, we see ATIO as a catalyst for engaging in new modeling techniques and integrated assessment work that can be deployed for looking beyond the obvious … processing improvements or formulating products that are useful for consumers and producers.”

Barrett believes this new venture is an interdisciplinary opportunity for Cornell faculty, students, alumni and staff to engage and to achieve a high-level impact.

“Cornell is incredibly diverse and this project showcases all of Cornell’s strengths,” Barrett said. “ATIO is consistent with the climate change initiative being championed across campus. It is deeply tied to global hubs and the global-engagement agenda.”

Barrett said: “This project is very consistent with the long-standing vision of Cornell as the land-grant university to the world.”

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Lindsey Knewstub