Fostering food system transformations through innovation


This blog post is written by Anudini Wijayarathna, Master’s student in Rural Development & Natural Resource Management at SLU. It was first published at SIANI, Swedish Internaional Agricultural Initiative.

Photo: Plant Protection Drone by viva14 / Pixabay.

SIANI, SLU and Sida (Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency) co-organised Food Systems for New Realities – Agri4D 2021 conference to explore the potential knowledge and constructive options that can be applied within the global food system to ensure food security. Having participated in the conference session ‘Innovation and Innovative Approaches’, I contemplated different approaches towards reshaping food systems based on innovation.


Shaping higher education for innovation


Innovation certainly incorporates a wide range of stakeholders from various sectors, such as the sciences, technology, policy, finance and different institutions. Yet, it is usually initiated through academia, which includes colleges, universities, research groups and many other actors. Thus, it is necessary to ensure that this transformation starts from the grassroot level of innovation. At the Conference, Laurens Klerkx, Professor, Wageningen University, highlighted the importance of boosting mission-driven innovation. Most importantly, identifying the directionalities of food systems clearly is essential to have ‘implicit and explicit food system transformation missions’ at the academic level.


Besides, more panelists attached to the higher education sector in different regions of the world depicted some more innovative approaches of capacity building, multi-sectoral collaborations, teaching methods, and facilitation in the universities to stimulate food system transformations. Especially, challenge-driven education around the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and student personal progress development methods, such as mentoring, is essential to encourage scholars towards research and innovation. In order to direct research-based innovation towards food system transformation, universities need to prioritise collaborating with other worldwide public and private stakeholders related to innovation and food systems. That will be crucial in creating opportunities for investments, future entrepreneurships, and global networks for innovation within academia to reshape food systems.


Two-sided financial aspects of innovation


On the other hand, Julia Compton, Head of Secretariat, Commission of Sustainable Agricultural Intensification, emphasised the dire need to expand investments in innovations related to agri-food systems in the Global South. Although 60 billion US dollars are spent on global innovations in agri-food systems yearly, it is just 4.5% of the total agricultural output. Particularly, most of the countries in the Global South have a critically low amount of investment in such innovations. Thus, it is urgent to acquire financial resources for that region through reconstructing policy structures, increasing incentives and identifying gaps between smallholder farmers and post-production processes through research while collaborating with all types of stakeholders affected by agri-food innovations.


Another significant aspect of innovation is its value-addition in the respective sectors, as innovation can play a major role in socio-economic development. The very same ideology was upheld by Tony K. Omwansa, CEO of Kenya National Innovation Agency, at the conference. To witness a profound change in food systems, it is required to transfer technological innovation and innovation ideas into market and entrepreneurship, through which a value-addition occurs. Furthermore, currently in a situation where food supply chain innovations are prioritised, it is also necessary to focus more on technological innovations around agri-food production.


From innovation to adoption


Apart from that, the scholars’ various innovations and innovative ideas were mostly aimed at providing digital solutions to reshape agri-food systems, such as the digital mechanisation of tractor services, the real-time data generation on diet quantity and quality, the digital collaboration of farming cooperatives and markets etc. They addressed different global food system challenges such as malnutrition, shortage of agricultural mechanisation services, market irregularities, climate change, insufficient access to education to agri-business, etc. However, implementation of and familiarisation with these digital approaches in society is even more difficult. The most common challenges are lack of digital literacy, trust in digital devices as well as connectivity within rural agricultural communities.


Aside from these types of innovative approaches, individuals and organisations have to think about including psychological and social innovations, too. The ideal food system transformation emerges by transforming fundamentally unsustainable concepts, such as evaluating food system development solely on monetary profits and economic growth. It is also constructive to bring forward innovative ideologies and assessment tools like nutrition adequacy, happiness index, food affordability and availability, food waste and loss metrics, etc. to evaluate food system development.


Photo: geralt / Pixabay.


Innovation as a driving factor towards sustainable food systems


The most striking feature of this Agri4D conference session for me was its multidimensional view towards innovation-based food systems transitions. The discussions and presentations unfolded a variety of innovations, which entailed technological, social and organisational aspects. It also encompassed several stakeholders across the globe within academia, entrepreneurs, governments and societies.


However, all these requirements to foster innovation-based food system transitions highlight the utter complexity of the concept. Nevertheless, I would say innovation is imperative for transitioning towards sustainable food systems. As a result of prevailing humanitarian and environmental crises along with the world’s population growth, we desperately need more efficient and innovative changes to intensify global food production without wearing off ecological, social and financial resources. Thus, I believe no matter how complicated the process is, it is crucial to initiate and promote innovation to stabilise food systems and ensure food security.


Simultaneously, we need to understand that society needs time to familiarise itself with innovation and that outcomes do not lie in the immediate future. Hence, as much as we can be optimistic towards innovation, it is essential to have the patience to see a transformation in food systems. Moreover, it is also vital to make sure not to leave anyone in the global community behind within this transition process. Most importantly, this approach is not only about attaining sustainable food systems and food security, but also about reaching all SDGs. Therefore, I consider this discourse on food system transformations through innovation as a perfect platform for us to expand our vision beyond the conventional framework to create a better world now and for the future.


Read another blog post from Agri4D on circular food systems.

Challenges in terms of land use in a changing climate  


This blog post was written by Ingrid Wesström, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Soil and Environment; Agricultural water management and Abraham Joel, Researcher at the Department of Soil and Environment; Agricultural water management, SLU.

Agricultural land in Rwanda
Agriculture systems need adaptation to stand change in climate (Rwanda). Photo: Abraham Joel

Knowledge transfer and building local capacity are key issues for resilient use of soil and water resources in agriculture production to cope with a changing climate. This to ensure food production and protect environment under threat.

The natural resource base continues to be very fragile and under threats from various pressures, such as unsustainable practices, increasing population and climate change. For that reason, old and new problems have to be addressed and solved simultaneously. Climate change involve temperature increment and changes in precipitation patterns. This creates a situation where drought, floods and erosion will become more frequent and with higher amplitude.

Soil degradation is still a major threat and land areas are taken out of production or have less productivity. Water erosion stands for almost 50% of the land degradation and more extreme weather situations in the future will make the situation worse. Therefore, better land use planning combined with local adapted soil and water conservation strategies has to be considered in the future use of soil resources.

Too little water or too much water has historically been a challenge for farmers. Irrigation and drainage have been the techniques for managing soil water content in field, but the implementation is still problematic in terms of efficiency in the use of the water resources and environmental impact. Significant improvements in the use of water are possible even with the use of traditional surface irrigation systems. However, each field is unique and farmers need knowledge on how to irrigate under specific field conditions.

Mitigation of the impact of climate change can be possible, but it will require significant investments in capacity for bringing knowledge into practices but also for generating new knowledge. Still, generation of knowledge is not sufficient. We need to disseminate the knowledge to several actors such as decision makers and land users.

SLU has longtime experiences of cooperative research project and beside the specific research thematic; building local capacity has being a central issue. Examples of past projects are: Evaluation of soil erosion rates under different land uses in Nicaragua and Developing of water saving strategies for irrigation in Mozambique. Examples of ongoing and new projects are: Management of salt affected soils and GHG emission for rice production in Rwanda; Precipitation patterns in changing climate and the need for adaptation in terms of water supply and land use planning.

Closing the loop – making food systems circular


This blog post was written by Kimberly Spirito, intern at SLU Global. It was first published at SIANI, Swedish International Agricultural Network Initiative.

Photo: Igrinz/Pizabay

We have all heard about the idea of creating circular systems and how they could create sustainable societies. But what would it take to transform our current linear systems into circular ones? This question was at the heart of one of the themed panel discussions at the Agri4D conference, which took place 28-30 September 2021.

The online conference brought together researchers, practitioners, policymakers, and an insightful audience to discuss food systems for new realities. The platform Coeo, on which the conference was held, offered the possibility of interacting with people working with sustainable transformation of food systems from all over the world. Panel discussions and presentations of the latest research were held, and the conference moderators brought everything together beautifully through a livestream on stage. It was like we were physically present at a conference, while having the perk of saving CO2 emission from not having to travel. New knowledge was generated, and new connections were made despite the pandemic.

Six topics were discussed during the conference. This blogpost will highlight my experiences and key takeaways from the panel discussions regarding topic 4 on circular food systems.

Rethinking waste management

Today, waste is produced at every step of the process from farm to fork, Matthias Eriksson highlighted that we have come pretty far in reintegrating waste into production chains and recycling it into new products and services. However, we can go further in terms of closing the loop.

What we want and what we see now is that there are a lot of initiatives to make these loops smaller so we can recirculate the waste directly back to the food supply chains and make it more efficient. But the problem is that there is a risk that we might just circulate everything without actually gaining the whole purpose of food, that it should be eaten.”- Matthias Eriksson, SLU 

The second speakers’ presentation continued with addressing the risk that reintegrating food waste into a system might not lead to the generation of more food being eaten. Charity Mashegde and Isheanesu Murwira, two representatives from the organisation Knowledge Exchange Hub, spoke about how they adopt the philosophy of “food is never waste” in their work. They proposed that using the food that could not be sold in markets to cultivate Black Soldier Fly larvae as protein for animal feed, but also as food for human consumption, could be a way of closing the loop and minimizing food waste. Black Soldier Fly larvae have lower environmental impact than other protein sources, and have high fat, protein and mineral content, more iron and zinc than lean meats, as well as more calcium than milk.

Another crucial topic discussed is that a lot of research and innovation in terms of waste management seems focused on the urban-to-urban or rural-to-urban loops. There is a shortage of interest in rural-to-rural circular systems, specifically within sanitation research. There is potential within this topic according to Linus Dagerskog, who presented a resource flow mapping tool for rapid assessment of rural recycling opportunities. It is a participatory tool where the community is involved in generating a waste management system that suits their needs best. This presentation showed the potential for the impact of research when conducted in close collaboration with the people who will benefit from it. A collective takeaway from the conference was that research needs to be conducted in collaboration with other actors and with the people who are to benefit from it.

Recirculating nutrients from waste

The potential of sanitation waste came up several times. PhD Student Aline Paiva Moreira’s talk on Human urine as a fertilizer for sustainable food systems highlighted a lack of diverse research on the topic of linking energy, sanitation, and agriculture. Most research on the topic is conducted in Europe or by European scholars. Aline pointed out that the solutions that fit the European context are not universal. Linking energy, sanitation, and agriculture is a way to create a sustainable circular system, but it needs to be country and context specific for it to be sustainable.

Researcher Chea Eliyan also spoke about the potential for nutrients and energy retrieval from faecal sludge specifically in the case of Phnom Penh. Nitrogen, phosphorus, and energy could be recovered from it. The talks by Aline and Chea highlighted the need for more sustainable sanitation systems and the real potential it could have for closing the loop when combined with agriculture and energy.

More effective use of animal waste within aquaculture was also discussed. According to Da Chau Ti, who spoke about a research project conducted in Vietnam, pond sediments from seafood production could be used as organic fertilizer for vegetable cultivation. Farmers could produce both fish and vegetables, generating food and income security by having multiple sources of income/food sources. There can also be less environmental impact and soil health can be improved over the years when pond sediments are incorporated as a fertilizer.

Circular system initiatives

Food insecurity is a real threat in our reality of climate change. Finding efficient and sustainable ways of producing food will ensure availability of food. Horticulture, hydroponics, and aquaponics present solutions for sustainable circular food production. Researchers Karl Johan Bergstrand and Sammar Khalil from SLU spoke about indoor food production and energy production from food waste and human waste after it’s been through biological treatment. Their research has revealed that bioremediation with fungi, nitrification, and dilution makes it possible to separate nutrients from harmful or unwanted substances within food waste and human waste in a safe way. High contents of Sodium, Chlorine, Ammonium, heavy metals, and micropollutants such as pesticides can be removed with these methods. The nutrients from the waste can then be used in hydroponics, aquaponics, and horticulture.

Another way of creating circular systems, besides recirculating waste into production, is to harness renewable energy. Yasmina Ganse presented how the company Spowdi works with enabling smallholder farmers to transition from fossil fuel to solar-powered irrigation pumps with no running costs. Spowdi is short for “solar-powered water distribution” and their technology is called Spowdi Mobile Pro. The technology helps farmers produce more food with less energy use and less water and thus helps to reduce the CO2 emissions and water consumption.

Many initiatives are trying to transform our current linear systems into circular ones, many targeting food systems. However, they face real challenges. The last speaker Jennifer McConville presented her ideas of how to best overcome these challenges, saying that it is important from the start to have a good understanding of the socio-technical landscape/regime before initiating projects for transformation. The systems we have today are based on linear process design. Implementing circular niches within current linear systems requires involvement from several actors, such as end users, service providers, users of products, politicians and regulators, and other sectors such as the building sector, energy sector and food sector.

If we want niche innovations to lead to circular solutions that work, we need to understand how we can play around with functions such as current functionality of technology, socio-cultural norms, legal and regulatory frameworks, existing skills and capacity, financial arrangements, and institutional arrangements within socio-technical landscapes. It is not enough to only consider the potential utility of a technology.

Food for thought

For me, as a student of Global Studies, the topic of nutrient and energy recovery from waste is not something I have thought about when thinking of circular systems. Hearing about the benefits of linking energy, sanitation, and agriculture was an eyeopener to the potential of food systems and sanitation systems to contribute to sustainability.

Following the panel discussions about circular systems within food systems has really given me food for thought. There are several things I take away from it, but the thoughts I take to heart are “food is never waste” and that implementing circular innovations where linear systems exist requires a comprehensive understanding of the bigger picture. To me, they encompass everything else said during the panel discussions and broadly answer the question of what it would take to transform our linear systems into circular.

To summarise, I quote Sara GrÀslund, head of SLU Global,

“It is important to work from farm to fork, but just as important to work from fork back to farm.”

Read another blog from Agri4D on innovations for food systems transformation.

By way of transforming food systems


This blog post is written by Master’s student; Anudini Wijayarathna, Rural Development & Natural Resource Management, SLU and Camilla Lindberg, MSc Environmental Science, SLU. The content is based on their experience in participating in the United Nations Food Systems Summit 2021,‘The People’s Plenary – Accelerating Action for the Future We Want’.

Women working within agriculture in Asia.

In a phase where the COVID-19 pandemic has destructively affected global food systems and food security, the much-needed global discourse on transformation of food systems was conducted by the UN Food Systems Summit 2021.

The aim of the summit was to create a platform in bringing all-inclusive, diverse and effective strategies to transform today’s food systems, through which the world can achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 – and we have listened to some of it and are happy to share some of our thoughts.

The session, ‘The People’s Plenary – Accelerating Action for the Future We Want’ brought attention to various efforts that the global community have initiated for this transformation through worldwide pre-summit dialogues. We were excited to listen in on this particular part of the summit to see what the national dialogues, that we also had taken part in, had generated in terms of collective action. During this session one thing that stood out to us was the multitude of coalitions that have been created around different food system issues. The coalitions are a way of collaborating and sharing knowledge to enable and accelerate the commitment of transforming the food systems to be sustainable and in line with Agenda 2030. We thought this was a great way of generating action around a specific topic as well as inspiring to see so many people wanting to share and work together.

We have described some of the coalitions below and what action areas they are related to:

Coalitions across the world

One of the coalitions from action area one, Nourish All People, is The Coalition of Action for Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems for Children It is & All. The coalition is described as a broad coalition that focuses on aligning and strengthening actions across sectors to be able to achieve collective impact on healthy diets. The actions the coalition is mainly focusing on should address malnutrition, unsafe foods and environmental impacts of food production.

The Global Sustainable Livestock Coalition is a part of action area two to Boost nature based solutions of production and their overarching goal is to “support decision making at all levels for farmer- and value-chain-oriented national/bioregional development”. Livestock production affects development in the economic, social as well as the environmental system and the coalition is a way to optimise sharing of best practises between stakeholders across scales.

Vegetables at a market. Credit: Pixabay

The session has also shed light on the strategies across the world to reduce food loss and waste under the Coalition on Food is Never Waste under action track two. While one in ten people in the world suffer from hunger, a large amount of food is wasted, which also results in releasing greenhouse gases. Thus, the initiative urges the consumers to avoid buying excess food while utilising what we buy. It also depicted the need to invest more in facilities to preserve food, and technologies for food waste management such as the food losses measuring method developed in Sweden to reduce food loss within food production.

Indigenous Peoples Food Systems coalition is connected to action track three; Advance Equitable Livelihoods, Decent Work, & Empowered Communities. The main objective of the coalition is to strengthen and protect indigenous people’s food systems across the world as well as scale up and disseminate the traditional knowledge and good practices already there that have the potential to transform the global food system as a whole.

Coalition of Action 4 Soil Health (CA4SH), linked to action track four, is established around the main objective of improving soil health with the intention of changing diverse perspectives of food systems constructively.  Paying farmers not only for volume but also for the quality and soil health, scaling up science-based solutions and innovation, sharing knowledge with farmers through field schools to store carbon in soils, increasing plant-based meat and dietary products and many other initiatives were uncovered by this coalition.

For a sustainable future

In review of these efforts, we felt encouraged to see that the summit and its’ extended network is mobilising people to act and specifically to collaborate. To be able to transform such complex systems as the food systems, cross-scale and cross-sectoral collaborations are definitely needed. Perhaps these coalitions can be a perfect place for the sharing of knowledge and practices to take place.

Nevertheless, we also find these initiatives are not as simple as we see. Especially the pandemic has made some people’s vulnerability worse because of health issues, unemployment and poverty, lack of access to food and resources and many more. Under such circumstances, will these coalitions be able just to come out of the worse scenario or to overcome the detrimental effects of the pandemic and create long-term sustainability in food systems? Most importantly, continuation of these collaborations in the long run is essential to see a visible change in food systems.

Apart from that, some of these actions could contradict different sustainable development goals. The coalitions’ effort of promoting plant-based dietary products can be a constructive change in acquiring health benefits for people whereas it can be a livelihood and environmental threat. For example, almond milk can be a comparatively nutritious plant-based substitute yet, almond cultivation is highly water extracting and labour consuming. Thus, it is also vital to integrate the implementation processes of these initiatives with the other Sustainable Development Goals.  Moreover, to see a sustainable future, the implementation strategies of these initiatives might have to be shaped constructively according to the situation.

If you want to know more about or get in contact with any of the coalitions, visit the FSS website or email

Ethiopia assesses Environmental Monitoring and Assessment for Agenda 2030


The blog post is written by Kevin Bishop, Professor at the Department of Aquatic Sciences and Assessment, SLU, and Solomon Gebreyohannis Gebrehiwot, Assistant professor at the Ethiopian Institute of Water Resources (EIWR) and Water and Land Resources Center (WLRC), Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia. 

A field excursion to considering the possibilities for environmental monitoring and assessment in Ethiopia. Photo: Kevin Bishop

There is a global consensus to work towards the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). But to set a course to these goals, and then navigate through the trade-offs and synergies between these goals is a challenge. Environmental Monitoring and Assessment (EMA) has been a central feature of how many industrialized societies, including Sweden, have tried to achieve environmental goals for half a century now. But Agenda 2030 involves the economic and social dimensions as well as the environmental dimensions of sustainable development.

A group of researchers from Ethiopia, Chile and Sweden, all with ties to SLU, looked at how EMA could be renewed for a more effective role in Agenda 2030 that encompasses socio-economic dimensions and respects the complexity of knowledge needed to understand nature’s contribution to socio-economic development (Bishop and Jönsson, 2020). The three national settings were chosen to focus on how EMA’s potential looked in societies with different income levels, with a focus on issues surrounding forests and waters.

One outcome of the project is a new article examining EMA in Ethiopia (Gebrehiwot et al., 2021). National experts and practitioners were gathered and interviewed by the country’s Academy of Science to look at what the country currently has in the way of EMA, but also opportunities for the future, since the possibilities for observing ecosystems have developed tremendously in recent years, including remote sensing, genomics, and citizen science.

The stakeholder discussions in Ethiopia revealed a strong and shared belief that evidence-based assessments can help manage the challenges posed by the simultaneous pursuit of multiple SDGs. The most remarkable finding for those involved in the expert meetings was discovering the existence of more environmental M&A than the expert group had anticipated. That highlighted a weakness that many of the participants already suspected, namely that the environmental data which does exist are not well-communicated. The information resources remain largely unknown to decision-makers and even relevant experts, to say nothing of secondary stakeholders and the public at large. Given how Europe and other industrialized societies struggle to achieve the goals of “open science”, the issue of data documentation and sharing is an even more acute challenge in low-income countries.

Solomon and other experts gathered at the Ethiopian Academy of Sciences, Feb 2018. Photo: Kevin Bishop

Strengthening existing public institutions, encouraging local participation through citizen science and adoption of up to date technologies to create national platform for EMA would be an important step to fill in the gaps identified in this study. Furthermore, this would facilitate addressing the needs for more integrated monitoring and assessment of the interactions between the use and management of water, forests, and other resources as well as to better navigate synergies and conflicts between SDGs.

Common to all the countries in the study, the participants in the Ethiopian study found that the evidence base must be translated into socially accepted knowledge in order to navigate potential synergies and conflicts between different SDGs. A strength Ethiopia has for this is the presence of government financed extension agents in villages across the country. This meant that developments in the evidence-base could be rapidly communicated and worked with down to the level of individual land-owners. Potential was also recognized in Ethiopia for more participatory environmental analysis methods that could promote a more inclusive dialogue on natural resource management.

Together with the other two case studies in Sweden and Chile, a theoretical framework regarding legitimacy and governance has been developed that could help evolve EMA into a powerful new tool which builds on a long tradition of environmental monitoring and assessment, but with the strength of co-production of knowledge suited to the vision of Agenda 2030, and a focus on learning processes in governance, creating versatility for different contexts (Alarcon et al., 2021).

This blog post is based on a published report:
Gebrehiwot, S. G., Bewket, W., Mengistu, T., Nuredin, H., Ferrari, C. A., & Bishop, K. (2021). Monitoring and assessment of environmental resources in the changing landscape of Ethiopia: a focus on forests and water. Environmental Monitoring and Assessment, 193(10), 1-13.

Alarcon Ferrari, C., Jönsson, M., Gebreyohannis Gebrehiwot, S., Chiwona-Karltun, L., Mark-Herbert, C., Manuschevich, D., Powell, N., Do, T., Bishop, K. & Hilding-Rydevik, T. (2021). Citizen Science as Democratic Innovation That Renews Environmental Monitoring and Assessment for the Sustainable Development Goals in Rural Areas. Sustainability, 13(5), 2762.

Bishop, K. and Jönsson, M. (2020). Med miljöanalys som verktyg: Skogen och Agenda 2030. KSLA Nytt och Noterat, 2020(1): 4-5)