Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

  • Perspective
  • Published:

Innovation can accelerate the transition towards a sustainable food system


Future technologies and systemic innovation are critical for the profound transformation the food system needs. These innovations range from food production, land use and emissions, all the way to improved diets and waste management. Here, we identify these technologies, assess their readiness and propose eight action points that could accelerate the transition towards a more sustainable food system. We argue that the speed of innovation could be significantly increased with the appropriate incentives, regulations and social licence. These, in turn, require constructive stakeholder dialogue and clear transition pathways.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Buy this article

Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Fig. 1: Future technologies with transformation potential.
Fig. 2: Technological readiness of future food system technologies.
Fig. 3: Essential elements for accelerating the systemic transformation of food systems.

Similar content being viewed by others


  1. Springmann, M. et al. Options for keeping the food system within environmental limits. Nature 562, 519–525 (2018).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  2. Frank, S. et al. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture without compromising food security? Environ. Res. Lett. 12, 105004 (2017).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  3. van Ittersum, M. K. et al. Can sub-Saharan Africa feed itself? Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 113, 14964–14969 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Havlík, P. et al. Climate change mitigation through livestock system transitions. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 111, 3709–3714 (2014).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  5. Rosegrant, M. W. et al. Food Security in a World of Natural Resource Scarcity The Role of Agricultural Technologies (International Food Policy Research Institute, 2014).

  6. Foley, J. A. et al. Solutions for a cultivated planet. Nature 478, 337–342 (2011).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  7. Rockström, J. et al. Planet-proofing the global food system. Nat. Food 1, 3–5 (2020).

    Google Scholar 

  8. Gao, L. & Bryan, B. A. Finding pathways to national-scale land-sector sustainability. Nature 544, 217–222 (2017).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  9. Arneth, A. et. al. Summary for Policymakers. In Special Report on Climate Change and Land (eds Masson-Delmotte, V. et al.) (IPCC, WMO, 2019).

  10. Searchinger, T. et al. Creating a Sustainable Food Future: a Menu of Solutions to Feed Nearly 10 Billion People by 2050 (Agency for International Development, 2018).

  11. Willett, W. et al. Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. Lancet 393, 447–429 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Pikaar, I. et al. Decoupling livestock from land use through industrial feed production pathways. Environ. Sci. Technol. 52, 7351–7359 (2018).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  13. Walsh, B. J. et al. New feed sources key to ambitious climate targets. Carbon Balance Manag 10, 1–8 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Bumpus, A. & Comello, S. Emerging clean energy technology investment trends. Nat. Clim. Chang 7, 382–385 (2017).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  15. Froggatt, A. & Wellesley, L. Meat Analogues: Considerations for the EU (Chatham House, 2019).

  16. Hall, A. & Dijkman, J. Public Agricultural Research and Development in an Era of Transformation Vol. 1 (Independent Science Council of the CGIAR and Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, 2019).

  17. Selian, A. N. & McKnight, L. In The Pursuit of Human Well-Being (eds. Estes, R. & Sirgy, M.) 639–687 (Springer, 2017).

  18. Tilman, D., Balzer, C., Hill, J. & Befort, B. L. Global food demand and the sustainable intensification of agriculture. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 108, 20260–20264 (2011).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  19. Davis, K. F. et al. Historical trade-offs of livestock’s environmental impacts. Environ. Res. Lett. 10, 125013 (2015).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  20. Campbell, B. M. et al. Agriculture production as a major driver of the Earth system exceeding planetary boundaries. Ecol. Soc. 22, 8 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Swinburn, B. A. et al. The Global Syndemic of Obesity, Undernutrition, and Climate Change: The Lancet Commission report. Lancet 6736, 1–56 (2019).

    Google Scholar 

  22. Mankins, J. C. Technology Readiness Levels, A White Paper (NASA, 1995).

  23. Mankins, J. C. Technology readiness assessments: a retrospective. Acta Astronautica 65, 1216–1223 (2009).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  24. Hirshhorn, S. et al. Final Report of the NASA Technology Readiness Assessment Study Team (NASA, 2016).

  25. Alexandratos, N. & Bruinsma, J. World Agriculture Towards 2030/2050: The 2012 Revision ESA Working Paper No. 12–03 (FAO, 2012).

  26. Swedish Research and Innovation Strategy for a Bio-based Economy (Swedish Research Council for Environment Agricultural Sciences and Spatial Planning, 2012).

  27. National Bioeconomy Blueprint (Office of Science and Technology Policy, 2012).

  28. El-Chichakli, B., von Braun, J., Lang, C., Barben, D. & Philp, J. Policy: Five cornerstones of a global bioeconomy. Nature 535, 221–223 (2016).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  29. System Innovation: Synthesis Report (OECD, 2015).

  30. Sánchez-Mejía, M. in Globalization and Health Inequities in Latin America (Malagón de Salazar, L. & Luján Villar, R.) 205–218 (Springer International Publishing, 2018).

  31. Philp, J. The bioeconomy, the challenge of the century for policy makers. Nat. Biotechnol. 40, 11–19 (2018).

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  32. Building the Bioeconomy 4th edn (Pugatch Consilium, 2017).

  33. Noack, A.-L. & Pouw, N. R. M. A blind spot in food and nutrition security: where culture and social change shape the local food plate. Agric. Human Values 32, 169–182 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Wellesley, L., Happer, C. & Froggatt, A. Changing Climate, Changing Diets: Pathways to Lower Meat Consumption (Chatham House, 2015).

  35. Nyborg, K. et al. Social norms as solutions. Science 354, 42–43 (2016).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  36. Greaker, M. & Midttømme, K. Network effects and environmental externalities: do clean technologies suffer from excess inertia? J. Public Econ. 143, 27–38 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Román, S., Sánchez-Siles, L. M. & Siegrist, M. The importance of food naturalness for consumers: results of a systematic review. Trends Food Sci. Technol. 67, 44–57 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. Stilgoe., J., Owen, R. & McNaghten, P. Developing a framework for responsible innovation. Res. Policy 42, 1568–1580 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Mytelka, L. K. Competition, Innovation and Competitiveness in Developing Countries (OECD, 1999).

  40. Snowden, D. J. The Cynefin Framework (Cognitive Edge, accessed 22 December 2018);

  41. Asheim, G. B. et al. The case for a supply-side climate treaty. Science 365, 325–327 (2019).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  42. Acemoglu, D., Akcigit, U., Hanley, D. & Kerr, W. Transition to clean technology. J. Polit. Econ. 124, 52–104 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. Harstad, B., Lancia, F. & Russo, A. Compliance technology and self-enforcing agreements. J. Europ. Econ. Assoc 17, 1–29 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. Ashford, N. in The Steilmann Report: The Wealth of People: An Intelligent Economy for the 21st Century 233–274 (2001).

  45. Dempwolf, C. S., Auer, J. & D’Ippolito, M. Innovation Accelerators: Defining Characteristics among Start-Up Assistance Organisations (Small Business Administration, Office of Advocacy, Univ. Maryland, 2014).

  46. Bryant, C. & Barnett, J. Consumer acceptance of cultured meat: a systematic review. Meat Sci. 143, 8–17 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. de Boer, J. & Aiking, H. Prospects for pro-environmental protein consumption in Europe: cultural, culinary, economic and psychological factors. Appetite 121, 29–40 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. Vanhonacker, F., Van Loo, E. J., Gellynck, X. & Verbeke, W. Flemish consumer attitudes towards more sustainable food choices. Appetite 62, 7–16 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  49. Preston, F. & Lehne, J. A Wider Circle? The Circular Economy in Developing Countries (Chatham House, 2017).

  50. Mazzucato, M. From market fixing to market-creating: a new framework for innovation policy. Ind. Innov 23, 140–156 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


M.H., D.M.-D., J.P.J., J.R.B., G.D.B., M.T.C., C.D., C.M.G., M.G., C.L.M., J.N., M.B.P., M.J.R. and S.M.S. acknowledge funding from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation; P.T., B.M.C., A.J. and A.M.L. acknowledge funding from the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), which is carried out with support from the CGIAR Trust Fund and through bilateral funding agreements (see The views expressed in this document cannot be taken to reflect the official opinions of these organizations. B.L.B. acknowledges funding from the NAVIGATE project of the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement 821124, and by the project SHAPE, which is part of AXIS, an ERA-NET initiated by JPI Climate, and funded by FORMAS (SE), FFG/BMWFW (AT), DLR/BMBF (DE, grant no. 01LS1907A-B-C), NWO (NL) and RCN (NO) with co-funding by the European Union (grant no. 776608); P.P. acknowledges funding from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (grant agreement no. 01DP17035); M.C. acknowledges funding from the Wellcome Trust, Our Planet Our Health (Livestock, Environment and People), award number 205212/Z/16/Z; J.S.G., P.S. and P.C.W. acknowledge funding from the Belmont Forum/FACCE-JPI DEVIL project (grant no. NE/M021327/1); A.P. acknowledges funding from the NAVIGATE project of the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement 821124, and by the project SHAPE, which is part of AXIS, an ERA-NET initiated by JPI Climate, and funded by FORMAS (SE), FFG/BMWFW (AT), DLR/BMBF (DE, grant no. 01LS1907A-B-C), NWO (NL) and RCN (NO) with co-funding by the European Union (grant no. 776608).

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



M.H., P.K.T., D.M.C., J.P. and J.B. designed the research. M.H., P.K.T., D.M.C., J.P., A.H., B.L. and K.N. wrote the manuscript. M.H., P.K.T., D.M.C. J.P., J.B., C.G., K.D. and J.N. analysed data. All authors contributed data and edited the paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Mario Herrero.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary methods, discussion and Tables 1,2.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Herrero, M., Thornton, P.K., Mason-D’Croz, D. et al. Innovation can accelerate the transition towards a sustainable food system. Nat Food 1, 266–272 (2020).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


Quick links

Nature Briefing Anthropocene

Sign up for the Nature Briefing: Anthropocene newsletter — what matters in anthropocene research, free to your inbox weekly.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing: Anthropocene