In This Issue
Summer Bridge on Smart Agriculture
June 15, 2022 Volume 52 Issue 2
People everywhere rely on agriculture in one form or another – for food, animal feed, fiber, and other necessities. The summer 2022 articles describe precision indoor farming and alternative protein food systems, advances in food processing, genome editing, digitalization, sustainable and regenerative agriculture, the role of a circular economy, and the important role of policy.

Science and Engineering to Transform Food Systems: The Role of a Facilitating Policy Framework

Monday, June 13, 2022

Author: Per Pinstrup-Andersen

A facilitating policy framework is essential to capture the benefits of science and engineering for improved food systems.

As discussed in this issue of The Bridge, science and engineering offer tremendous opportunities for reforming food systems to improve human and ecosystem health. Impacts are likely to be enhanced if food system interventions are undertaken within facilitating policy frameworks. In this article I consider how government policy may facilitate innovation, technology development, knowledge creation, and their application to improve food systems.

I begin with a brief definition of what is generally meant by the term “food systems.” Then I survey some of the major current and future challenges confronting food systems, and suggested goals, to provide the background for a discussion of a facilitating policy framework.

What Is a Food System?

A clear definition of a food system is critically important before embarking on its transformation. Unfortunately, there is no agreement about such a definition, either among the relevant major players or in the literature. The definitions and descriptions of food systems vary from a narrow focus on food and agricultural supply chains to inclusion of virtually all aspects of a national economy. The former is likely to miss important opportunities for improvements, while the latter basically calls for an overall economic transformation in the name of a food system transformation.

I define a food system as a dynamic system comprising all food-related activities and the people who participate in them (Pinstrup-Andersen and Watson 2011). The system operates in natural, political, and socioeconomic environments and is affected by social and economic changes brought about by public policy and action by the private sector and civil society as well as forces such as globalization, urbanization, climate changes, and technological advancement. Thus, efforts to transform food systems may aim at changes within or outside the systems themselves.

I define a food system as a dynamic and behavioral system comprising all food-related activities and the people who participate in them.

Challenges Confronting Food Systems

Challenges confronting food systems are context-specific and policy interventions should be tailored to the relevant contexts. From a global perspective, the following four challenges appear to be of greatest importance in terms of both current threat and a worsening trend:

  • widespread and increasing food insecurity, nutritional deficiencies, and obesity in large segments of the world population, and related premature death, poor health, reduced labor productivity, and increasing international and national instability
  • deterioration of the stock of natural resources, including water, soil, and biodiversity, needed to ensure future productive capabilities for food as well as the maintenance of nature for its own sake (e.g., undeveloped forests, marshlands, prairies, rivers, and coasts)
  • climate change, which both influences and is influenced by food systems
  • the rise of antiscience sentiments and rejection of science-based evidence in decisions related to food systems.

What Should Food System Transformations Achieve?

The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 2[1] provides an overall answer to the question above: End hunger and malnutrition, and double sustainable agricultural production among smallholder farms by 2030. In its Voluntary Guidelines on Food Systems and Nutrition (CFS 2021, p. 13), the UN Committee on World Food Security suggests that policies and actions to transform food systems should

  • “enhance the livelihoods, health, and wellbeing of populations”;
  • encourage “sustainable food production and responsible consumption of safe, diverse, and nutritious foods to enable healthy diets”;
  • “protect and promote sustainable use of natural resources, biodiversity, and ecosystems”; and
  • “support mitigation of and adaptation to climate change.”

I suggest that a more specific and operationally useful set of goals for policy and other action to transform food systems, in all contexts, might consist of

  • a significant increase in the percentage of the population, covered by the food system in question, that consumes a healthy diet;
  • a significant increase in the capacity of the total resources available, both natural and human-made, to meet future demand for healthy diets; and
  • no significant damage to the intrinsic value of nature (i.e., independent of its value for productive purposes).

These goals would focus on trends (rather than quantitative goals), while (i) taking into account both human and environmental health, sustainability, and opportunities for trade-offs and substitutions between natural and human-made resources and (ii) recognizing the intrinsic value of nature (as explained above). Context-specific policies, projects, and actions could then replace “significant” with quantitative goals and timelines.

A Suggested Facilitating Policy Framework

In a market economy, food systems are influenced by decisions made by millions of consumers, traders, farmers, government officials, policymakers, and a variety of other agents operating within and outside the systems. For policy interventions to be successful in achieving their goals, they must fit the reality within which these decision makers operate and their priorities.

Policymakers’ Resource Constraints and Decision Space

Decisions related to food systems are facilitated or constrained by the resources available to decision makers, as well as the demand for their resources for other purposes and their goals and relative power. Policy-makers’ decisions are particularly important because government policy can influence decisions and behavior through incentives, regulations, and sharing of knowledge. But governments are confronted with many demands for policy interventions and those of greatest importance for food systems may not be at the top of the government’s list of priorities. Therefore, policy action to improve food systems should be designed with a clear understanding of these other priorities to seek win-win outcomes.

The relative power and decision space available to each decision maker or group can be changed through legislative action and resource allocations. A facilitating policy framework is particularly important to support the impact of science and engineering on food systems.

In some cases, as illustrated by the behavior of many governments toward genetically engineered food and agricultural commodities, government rules and regulations influenced by antiscience and/or antimarket lobbying groups may be a major hindrance to achieve potential positive food system effects from research and development. This has been particularly important in legislation related to so-called GMOs (genetically modified organisms), based on gene transfer between species, while the more recent gene editing within a given species has received less—but nevertheless significant—opposition.

Accounting for Externalities

While the nature and content of policy frameworks as well as the specific policy interventions for food systems are context-specific, the most important role of policy in all market economies is to correct for externalities and other market failures through regulations, incentives, or knowledge creation and dissemination.

Externalities occur when total social costs or benefits are only partially reflected in market transactions. For example, environmental costs embodied in lowering ground water levels, reducing biodiversity, depleting cropland nutrients, or expanding greenhouse gas emissions may not be reflected in the cost of food production and processing. Neither may malnutrition and human health costs associated with obesity, diabetes, and other related chronic diseases.

The most important role of policy in market economies is to correct for externalities and market failures through regulations, incentives,
or knowledge creation and dissemination.

Failure to endogenize the cost of natural resource degrada-tion in the production costs and consumer prices in virtually every country is resulting in huge costs to societies and future generations. Similarly, productivity losses and health costs caused by the consumption of unhealthy diets may result in large costs to societies and individuals. Other market failures, such as skewed market power and related lack of competition, may require government intervention.

Policy Interventions

A variety of policy interventions are available to governments, such as commodity-specific taxes and sub-sidies, public investment in both research and knowledge dissemination related to alternative production and processing methods, and consumer-oriented educational campaigns to promote healthy diets. Public and private investment in innovation and awareness regarding nontraditional foods (such as—in the West—edible insects, seaweed), and policy interventions to facilitate greater availability of nutritious processed foods and reduction of nutritionally harmful foods, may play an important role. Policy to facilitate a shift from animal-sourced to plant-based foods, in societies where the former constitutes a large share of the diet, can incorporate results from science and engineering to improve diets and sustainable management of natural resources.

A policy framework should guide and facilitate research and technology development for the food system through public or private funding and exclusive rights policies, such as patents and copyrights, or open access in the form of public goods.[2] Past agricultural research and technology developments, such as those of the Green Revolution, have been key to the rapid expansion of yields per unit of land and water, unit-cost reductions, and increased production of food staples. Government policy, including investments in road and water infrastructure and market facilities, played a major role.

Governments can facilitate subsidized access to innovation in health care and nutrition for healthy diets for low-income consumers and farmers.

Whereas the research that resulted in the Green Revolution was undertaken primarily by public sector institutions and financed primarily by public sources, recent opportunities for obtaining exclusive rights to research outcomes from genetic engineering and gene editing brought the private sector into play. That led to a need for different types of government policies, and private-public partnerships became more widespread. At the same time, though, antiscience sentiments developed in many societies, in part based on opposition to large corporations perceived as gaining “control” over future food supplies and the misplaced perception that smallholder farmers would be unable to get access to the new technology.

Defining an Effective Policy Framework

Knowledge Dissemination and Use

A policy framework for the food system should facilitate access to knowledge and technology among potential users, including food producers and processors, and promote evidence-based decisions among stakeholders. Government action is needed to negate the impact of misinformation related to food systems, including well-funded campaigns against the use of modern science in agriculture (e.g., genetic engineering and editing [CRISPR] and food processing), and the rejection of science-based evidence. Governments can play a particularly important role by facilitating subsidized access to results from innovation in health care and nutrition for healthy diets for low-income consumers and farmers.


The benefits of past and current investment in innovation and technology development and dissemination are illustrated by very high social rates of return from such activities. Persistent underinvestment calls for urgent attention by governments. Such attention should focus on either expanding public funding for research and technology to generate public goods (e.g., new knowledge available to all) or protecting the rights of private sector research entities for producing private goods (e.g., improved crop varieties or healthy processed foods).

Public-private partnerships, involving some public funding, may be needed to ensure access to private goods by low-income farmers or consumers.


An effective policy framework should be able to change the behavior of various stakeholder groups through changes in relative prices and/or costs, income, and other incentives. Such incentives may be macro-economic, such as monetary and trade policies, or microeconomic, such as taxes, subsidies, and related fiscal policies. The specific nature of the interventions would depend on government objectives, for example

  • substitution of plant-based for animal-sourced foods,
  • improved efficiency in input use through the promotion of precision agriculture,
  • climate-independent and water-saving production of certain food commodities by means of vertical production,
  • enhanced access to water for agriculture through desalination, or
  • agroecological or organic agricultural production methods to improve food system sustainability.

Support of Healthy Diets

Past single-minded emphasis on increased production of grains, root crops, and other calorie-rich foods, headed by the Green Revolution, was very successful in preventing predicted mass starvation in Asia and elsewhere. It is now high time to address widespread micronutrient deficiencies, excessive calorie intake, and related negative health issues. Efforts are underway but much research and policy are still guided by maximization of the production of calories. A redirection of science, technology, and policy toward the production of a portfolio of foods that provide the foundation for diversified, healthy diets is urgently needed.

Context-based Prioritization

There are, of course, many other priorities for government policy related to innovation and technology development and dissemination, including alternative energy sources (e.g., solar panels, wind, biofuel), reduced food waste and losses, antimicrobial resistance, and animal welfare. All of these have large potential effects on food systems.

Bottom Line

A facilitating policy framework is essential to fully capture the benefits of science and engineering for improved food systems.

Current and future food systems depend on the decisions and actions of a variety of stakeholder groups, including governments, and individuals. Governments have four tools at their disposal to influence decisions and actions by other stakeholder groups: They can change the incentives for stakeholder groups, regulate their behavior, change resource allocation and facilitate investment in research and development, and disseminate knowledge. These tools can be used to enhance innovation, knowledge creation, and technology application for food systems.


CFS [Committee on World Food Security]. 2021. Voluntary Guidelines on Food Systems and Nutrition. Rome: UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

Pinstrup-Andersen P, Watson DD II. 2011.  Food Policy for Developing Countries.  Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press.


[2]  A public good is available to all (nonexclusive) and nobody can diminish its availability to others (nonrival).

About the Author:Per Pinstrup-Andersen is professor emeritus, Division of Nutritional Sciences, Cornell University, and adjunct professor, Copenhagen University.