August 8, 2019 | By Julia Whiting

Agricultural Innovation Can Feed the Planet, But It Needs Policy Support

This fall, Chicago will host a pitch competition and mentoring platform for agri-food startups. This choice reflects the city’s position in the agri-food startup world: not only a hub of US agriculture, from 2013-2018 Chicago startup venture capital funding increased 63 percent, and the city outperformed San Francisco and New York City in returns on VC investment. While Chicago is particularly successful, the world of agri-food tech is booming everywhere. Investments in the field are on the rise and have been for several years. New innovations are coming to market, and they range from improved seed varieties to ever-increasing animal protein alternatives. As innovation offers novel food security solutions, it is necessary to ask if policies are keeping up.

Milk, Meat, and Genomes

Many companies and researchers are working to develop the future of food. Some of the results seem to verge on the unimaginable, while others feel like variations on a familiar theme. Many could become a breakthrough for food security. One company has found a way to create “animal-free dairy milk” using fermented flora. Cultured (cell-based) meat is getting closer to market viability. Either could signal a break through in the way that protein is produced, saving precious land and water resources, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. As countries’ incomes increase, so does demand for meat. Developing more resource-efficient methods of producing animal protein could help meet that demand without increasing the burden to the planet.

The public and private sectors alike have made advancements in improved seed varieties. Some improvements are reached using the still relatively new gene-editing method called CRISPR-Cas9. This technique can silence, edit, or insert genes into a plant’s DNA, producing inheritable changes in a plant’s genetics that are almost impossible to trace. CRISPR, as it is commonly referred to, is being used to create tomato plants with that bear more fruit, mushrooms that do not brown, more productive rice, and citrus that is resistant to citrus greening disease.

Are policies as savvy as the technology?

As technology expands what is possible in our food system, policies must keep pace. When countries or even states have different approaches to agri-food tech advances, inefficiencies can arise, and it is difficult for policy to change as rapidly as our technology does. The EU and several US states have decided to prevent plant-based foods from using words associated with animal products, like “burger” or “milk.” This decision may force companies to invest in different labeling depending on where they are selling a product, or to simply not sell in an area at all. It also raises questions about how policymakers will approach cultured meat, or animal-free dairy—both seen as environmentally friendly foods of the future. How will lab-grown meat be defined? If a plant-based milk naturally contains whey and casein, two proteins found in dairy milk, can it be called milk? How will disparate policies affect commerce?

Divergent policy around genetic engineering has been a source of confusion that will likely continue. USDA Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue issued a statement in 2018 which clarified the agency’s position on gene editing. Viewing the process as not substantively different from traditional selective breeding, the USDA does not subject genetically edited to the same regulatory oversight required for transgenic modification. The European Union took the opposite approach when its Court of Justice ruled that gene edited crops were subject to its stringent regulations on genetically modified organisms. Some gene edits are nearly indistinguishable from natural mutations in a DNA, making detection and enforcement of restrictions difficult.

The gene-editing policies that are adopted in low- and middle-income countries (LMIC) will have broad trade and food security ramifications.Staple crops that can be improved by gene-editing can help vulnerable nations build food security resilience to climate change. Argentina and Brazil both have adopted policies that allow for flexible, case-by-case regulation of gene-edited crops, which have been seen as potential regulatory models for other nations. The Ugandan Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation has looked to Brazil’s policy as one inspiration for how they will approach new gene-edited products. This could have a bearing on Ugandan researchers’ work developing a disease-resistance cassava, which is cultivated in 40 of the 53 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, predominantly on small farms.

LMIC hoping to develop and grow gene-edited plants will be making implicit decisions about which agricultural products they can trade, and with whom. There are strong trade relationships between the EU and Africa and some experts fear that navigating regulations could hinder biotechnology development on the continent. After Ghana’s Environmental Protection Agency released a study finding that the country’s climate would be unsuitable for growing cacao by 2080, researchers got to work using CRISPR-Cas9 to develop a climate resistant cacao variety. If Ghana invests in these seeds, that could have far reaching implications--Ghana is the world’s second largest producer of cocoa, and the EU consumes over half of the world’s cocoa beans.

Collaboration and Coordination can Point the Way Forward

Achieving zero hunger will require a global effort, utilizing the latest scientific advances across sectors and international borders. While some aspects of new technologies are still ambiguous, the solution is increased research, discussion, and inquiry—not less. As the Council has recommended in several publications, now is the time for more international, cross-sector coordination and collaboration. More research is needed to determine the full range of benefits and challenges that new agri-food technologies can pose. An increase in communication and partnership between universities, established companies and VC startups, and research institutions around the world will allow for faster dissemination of agri-food tech, best practices, and evidence-based policy recommendations. Chicago may be a leader of agri-food startups, but we can’t solve the world’s food insecurity alone.


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


1,000 Days Blog, 1,000 Days

Africa Can End Poverty, World Bank

Agrilinks Blog

Bread Blog, Bread for the World

Can We Feed the World Blog, Agriculture for Impact

Concern Blogs, Concern Worldwide

Institute Insights, Bread for the World Institute

End Poverty in South Asia, World Bank

Global Development Blog, Center for Global Development

The Global Food Banking Network

Harvest 2050, Global Harvest Initiative

The Hunger and Undernutrition Blog, Humanitas Global Development

International Food Policy Research Institute News, IFPRI

International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center Blog, CIMMYT

ONE Blog, ONE Campaign

One Acre Fund Blog, One Acre Fund

Overseas Development Institute Blog, Overseas Development Institute

Oxfam America Blog, Oxfam America

Preventing Postharvest Loss, ADM Institute

Sense & Sustainability Blog, Sense & Sustainability

WFP USA Blog, World Food Program USA


Photo of the Week

Elias Ndinduyubwo of Kagabiro, Rwanda, carries maize stalks he cut earlier that morning while harvesting.

The Ethiopian Approach to Food Security

Last year, a bipartisan group of 23 members of Congress, hosted by the Aspen Institute, travelled to Ethiopia to get a firsthand view of the progress the country was making in modernizing agriculture and smallholder farming.

101 Organizations to Watch in 2014

There's no shortage of organizations around the world who are working to create a more sustainable, more just food system.

Photo of the Week

Catherine Simiyu from Bunambobi, Kenya, spreads the beans she just harvested to dry in the sun.

Interview with Mauricio Antonio Lopes

Mauricio Antonio Lopes, president of the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation, explains Brazil's national efforts to invest in agricultural development and the importance of scientific investment to achieve global food security.

Meet the Experts: Navyn Salem

Navyn Salem is the founder and Executive Director of Edesia, a non-profit producer of Plumpy’Nut and other peanut-based, ready-to-use nutritious foods used to treat and prevent childhood malnutrition. Since March 2010, Edesia has reached 1.6 million malnourished children in 36 countries.

Interview with Lindiwe Majele Sibanda

Lindiwe Majele Sibanda, chief executive officer and head of mission of the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN), highlights the need to invest in women farmers to boost agricultural production and the intersection between scientific research and agricultural development.

Photo of the Week

Anonciata Mbakirirehe of Kayenzi, Rwanda, stands amid her newly germinated maize.

Interview with 2013 Next Generation Student Jose Pablo Soto-Arias

Jose Pablo Soto-Arias, a plant pathology student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, describes his work on food-borne plant pathogens as well as the importance of supporting new agricultural research and young scientists in the field of food security.

Interview with Cynthia Rosenzweig

Cynthia E. Rosenzweig, senior research scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, discusses the important role of research and education to help mitigate impacts of climate change.

Photo of the Week

Beatrice Wasike of Victorious, Kenya, shows off the millet she harvested this season. Beatrice harvested 8 bags of millet from a quarter acre of land.