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Food crisis and sustainability: startups can have a leading role

Startups use innovative technologies to introduce new sustainable practices in the agrifood sector, leading the change it sorely needs


Food crisis is a global problem. FAO's latest forecasts say that more than 3 billion people are facing some level of food insecurity, from moderate to severe. Things are getting even worse, now, because food supply chains have been disrupted by the war in Ukraine and because climate emergency has a negative impact on food production everywhere.

There's a lot of faith in technology as a sistemic change driver for this scenario. The idea is that agrifood supply chains can be transformed through innovation, to become more effective and also more sustainable. The goal is not simply to produce more - intensive productions already proved themselves ineffective and unsafe for the planet, in the long run - but to produce the "right" amount for us and the ecosystems.

Innovative technlogies can help a lot. That's why the number of agrifood tech startup has been growing. Between 2017 and 2021, Politecnico di Milano counted more than 7.330 active startups, globally. It's not just a matter of numbers: what matters more is that agrifood startups' strategies and approaches are more and more aligned with UN's Sustainable Development Goals. This strengthen the idea that the - not so distant, we hope - future of agrifood will be sustainable "by design".

What are these startups working on? Most of them (roughly a third) develop solutions to improve natural resources use in food production. A fifth work on different forms of ecosystem protection. Other addressed issues are fostering sustainable lifestyles adoption, increasing crops' climate change resiliency, developing sustainable tourism, helping local food productions, reducing food waste in the supply chain, promotinga fair access to water resources.

What analysts underline, however, is that startups can - and will - have a leading role in agrifood transformation not just because they offer innovative solutions based on new technologies. It's also important that startups can develop and propose innovative business models to conquer new market opportunities. Being a market force and not just a tech force, agrifood startups can effectively introduce new sustainable practices in the agrifood sector as a whole.

As those in other sectors, and even more, agrifood sustainability startups have a problem to solve: money. Richest countries offer many investment opportunities, but food uncertainty is not an issue there. Countries with an urgent need to innovate their agrifood sector, on the opposite, rarely have a thriving funding ecosystem.

Therefore, countries where food sustainability startups represent a big percentage of agrifood startups - as in Norway (60%), Israel (58%), Nigeria and Poland (50%) - aren't the same countries where they get more investments. As in Asia, where the average agrifood startup focused on sustainability gathers 10,9 million dollars of funding. Or in the States (8,7 million) and in Europe (4,1 million). So, there's a lot of work to be done.

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