The World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting takes place until Friday in Davos, Switzerland. Photo: WEF
The World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting takes place until Friday in Davos, Switzerland. Photo: WEF

Agriculture and food security will be major discussion points at this year’s edition of the World Economic Forum in Davos. Around 3 000 of the biggest names in business, government and civil society are convening in the snow-bound Swiss town until Friday to shape global, regional and industry agendas.

President Cyril Ramaphosa | Photo: GovernmentZA
President Cyril Ramaphosa | Photo: GovernmentZA

This list of dignitaries includes Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. As the government shutdown in the US drags on, President Donald Trump cancelled his trip to Davos. The South African delegation is led by President Cyril Ramaphosa and Finance Minister Tito Mboweni, with 54 other local business and government leaders representing Mzansi.

According to the WEF, the average age for attendees is 54 for men and 49 for women. The oldest attendee is naturalist and narrator David Attenborough at 92 years old. The youngest is the 16-year-old photographer Skye Meaker from South Africa, who last year won the prestigious international Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition.

Sixteen-year-old Skye Meaker was named Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year by the Natural History Museum, London last year. He is also attending the WEF in Davos.
Sixteen-year-old Skye Meaker was named Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year by the Natural History Museum, London last year. He is also attending the WEF in Davos.

The main theme of this year’s WEF meeting is “Globalization 4.0: Shaping a New Architecture in the Age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.” Klaus Schwab, executive chairman of the WEF, told reporters in Davos: “We have to define a new approach to globalization which is more inclusive.”

Dr Juergen Voegele, Senior Director of Food and Agriculture Practice at the World Bank, and Jane Nelson, Director of the Corporate Responsibility Initiative at Harvard Kennedy School, say they have identified four priorities in the race to build a sustainable global food system. In an article published by the WEF, Voegele and Nelson say finding solutions to provide nutritious food to nearly 10 billion people by 2050 without destroying the planet is one of the greatest leadership opportunities of our generation.

They argue that the global food system is the least disrupted sector in terms of technology, policy and business model innovation. It lags far behind energy and health in attracting commercial investment and blended finance.

The WEF hopes to shape a new global architecture at this year's Davos summit. | Photo: WEF
The WEF hopes to shape a new global architecture at this year’s Davos summit. | Photo: WEF

Highlights from Voegele and Nelson’s WEF report:

Nearly every second person on the planet is malnourished and all trends, besides child stunting, are heading in the wrong direction. Hunger is on the rise, one in three women are anaemic, and food insecurity is manifesting itself in a rise of overweight and obesity.

The Global Burden of Disease 2017 report highlights the challenge, with most of the top five early-death risk factors related to diets that are badly out of sync with our bodies’ basic needs.

The world’s roughly 500 million smallholder farmers are among the poorest and most malnourished groups and the environmental challenges are equally stark. The agri-food sector currently accounts for some 30% of greenhouse gas emissions and 70% of freshwater withdrawal. This is unsustainable, and we still need to significantly increase food production even if we get on top of the food loss and waste challenges.

The World Resources Report on creating a sustainable food future, produced by the World Resources Institute in partnership with the World Bank, UN Environment, UN Development Programme and the French agricultural research agencies CIRAD and INRA, rings the alarm: “If today’s levels of production efficiency were to remain constant through 2050, then feeding the planet would entail clearing most of the world’s remaining forests, wiping out thousands more species, and releasing enough greenhouse gas emissions to exceed the 1.5°C and 2°C warming targets enshrined in the Paris Agreement — even if emissions from all other human activities were entirely eliminated.”

We have identified the following four areas of urgent action for policy makers and private sector leaders to make the next harvests work for our collective future:

1. Leverage technology innovation

The World Economic Forum and its partners have identified a set of 12 transformative agricultural technology areas with the potential to generate significant positive impacts along food value chains. These range from innovations to change the shape of food demand, such as alternative proteins and nutrigenetics, to those that can make food systems more resource-efficient and climate-resilient such as precision agriculture, gene-editing and biological-based crop protection, and technologies that improve traceability.

2. Turbo-charge food research hubs and networks

Closely linked to the technology agenda is the need to rev up the ambition of agricultural and nutrition research facilities and alliances. Both national institutes and global institutions are required, and both the public and private sectors have crucial roles to play.

3. Unlock finance for small and medium enterprises

The current food system is so riddled with inefficiencies that smart investors and disruptive entrepreneurs have begun to take notice. McKinsey estimates that global food and agricultural investments tripled between 2004 and 2013 to more than $100 billion. The number of investment funds in agriculture and nutrition grew from about 40 to over 440 between 2005 and 2017.

More than 60% of the assets under management by these funds, however, are invested in North America and Europe. Only 6% are invested in Asia Pacific and 4% in Africa. Even less money is invested in the small and medium enterprises (SME’s) that provide crucial jobs in rural and urban areas alike, and which make up the bulk of the food inputs, production, processing and distribution systems in developing economies.

4. Restructure agricultural support to deliver public goods

According to the OECD, agricultural policies and public support provided about $570 billion a year on average from 2015-2017 to agricultural producers in the 51 countries reviewed. Some of these funds are effectively targeted to incentivize the production of more nutritious foods, more sustainable use of natural resources, increased economic efficiency and enhanced incomes for smallholder farmers.

However, out of that $570 billion only $86 billion was used for public-good type investments such as agricultural research and extension and food safety. A significant amount of public subsidies have instead had more negative effects, especially when it comes to worsening, rather than improving, climate outcomes.