Repeated episodes throughout history remind us that AFSs episodically undergo dramatic transformations, most of them purposeful—guided by incentives prevailing at the time—rather than purely random changes. Typically, these changes have taken decades or centuries. A major shock, like the COVID-19 pandemic, may help spark the more rapid transformation that we desperately need. Hence the value of explicitly envisioning AFS transformation to direct the transformative power unleashed by the pandemic towards desired outcomes.

figure a

Transformations originate in either scientific or social processes, or more often a combination of the two, the sorts of socio-technical innovation bundles we emphasize in this report. All truly novel and noteworthy advances have been driven by pressing social needs, responding to economic and social incentives and harnessing the accumulated information available at the time (Arthur 2007).Footnote 1 For example, the Green Revolution’s focus on dramatically expanding the supply of staple cereals and roots/tubers was directly born of concerns that insufficient supplies of dietary energy (i.e., calories) would lead to famine in the face of growing human populations (Ehrlich 1968). The Green Revolution succeeded fabulously in meeting the objective of boosting per capita calorie supplies, thereby driving down real food prices, boosting anthropometric outcomes, reducing the rate of agricultural extensification into the world’s forests, and reducing infant mortality (Evenson and Gollin 2003; Gollin et al. 2018; von der Goltz et al. 2020). But the Green Revolution also had significant unintended environmental, equity, and health consequences. For the next major AFS transformation, we must design better and differently (Barrett 2021).

We therefore preface our exploration of AVC innovations that might beneficially transform the AFSs of tomorrow by first identifying the most pressing societal needs that they must address. Especially given what we know about the present state of AFSs globally, what are the key AFS design objectives for a generation or two from now, the period 2045–2070, during which we expect to reach peak human population (Vollset et al. 2020) and by which time scientific discoveries not yet made or even imagined can have matured and diffused at scale?

First, however, it is worth reminding ourselves why such design objectives matter and the remarkable transformations that can arise in response to emergent social needs. Humans began domesticating wild plants and animals roughly 12 millennia ago as semi-nomadic groups felt pressure to settle, in part to reduce episodic conflict that came from contestation of open-access resources and unplanned encounters. These early humans began to select plants based on desirable traits and to actively cultivate food crops rather than depend on hunting and gathering. The resulting domestication of wild animals and plants into the livestock breeds and crop species we know today enabled the emergence of modern civilizations.

Progress over the intervening millennia was slow and sporadic. Then the enclosure movement transformed land and labor allocation in late eighteenth– and early nineteenth–century England. Enclosure involved a sometimes-violent process of consolidating small farms and open-access lands into larger, private holdings through the exercise of economic, legal, and political power by the landed aristocracy. Enclosure is generally considered a key spark of the first modern agricultural revolution, prompting significant, sustained gains in crop productivity that were unprecedented in European history and that were generalized across the major staple crops, like barley, oats, and wheat (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1
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(Data sources Our World in Data, FAOSTAT)

Long-term cereal yields of key crops in the United Kingdom from 1270 to 2018. Wheat, barley, and oat yields are shown in metric tons per hectare

Gregor Mendel’s mid-nineteenth-century discovery of the basic principles of heredity and use of experimental design and careful measurement laid the foundation for modern genetics and genomics but did not immediately ignite any major gains in agricultural productivity. The massive Dust Bowl droughts and Great Depression of the 1930s in the United States, however, compelled federal and state government investment in agricultural research and extension to help address mass internal migration and suffering. What followed was an extraordinary period of scientific advances in staple cereals hybridization and of labor-saving mechanization that were widely adapted and diffused, dramatically altering the agricultural productivity trajectory of the United States, with significant global spillovers that similarly transformed agriculture throughout the rest of the high-income temperate world.

Then, roughly fifty years ago, the world was staring at a “population bomb” that threatened recurring famine and mass starvation—especially in Asia and Latin America, which had not benefitted much from the temperate agriculture gains of the preceding decades (Ehrlich 1968). This ignited a Green Revolution thanks in large measure to advances in plant breeding, irrigation, and the production of inorganic nitrogenous fertilizer—and to a lesser degree, mechanization—all supported through public and philanthropic investments that ensured universal access to improved plant material, agronomic practices, and engineering designs, supported by appropriate public policy and infrastructure. The resulting growth in the productivity of staple crops appropriate to a wide range of agroecologies was historically unprecedented (Fig. 2). When faced with massive systemic, even existential challenges, our ancestors envisioned and achieved remarkable innovations that ultimately begat the AFSs we have today, for good and for ill. It is time to do so again.

Fig. 2
figure 2

(Data source Our World in Data based on FAO data. Note that FAO computes some crop yields based on dry grain and others based on fresh produce, inclusive of fluids)

Global crop yields from 1961 to 2018. Global yields for eleven staple crops are shown in metric tons per hectare

What features of the 2045–2070 world establish the design objectives for today’s AVC innovators? We emphasize four essential, inter-related objectives, which we summarize with the mnemonic HERS: healthy diets, equitable and sustainable livelihoods, resilience to shocks and stressors, and climate and environmental sustainability. The HERS objectives consolidate and build naturally on the 17 SDGs agreed to by all UN member states in 2015, especially SDGs 1 (no poverty), 2 (zero hunger), 3 (good health and well-being), 5 (gender equality), 6 (clean water and sanitation), 7 (clean and affordable energy), 8 (decent work and economic growth), 10 (reduced inequalities), 12 (responsible consumption and production), 13 (climate action), 14 (life below water), and 15 (life on land). But these must extend far beyond the 2030 SDG target date, as few de novo innovations today stand much chance of diffusing at scale within the decade. So we take a somewhat longer-run view, beyond the 2030 horizon. We look 25–50 years into the future.

First, AFSs must meet the food security standard definition, agreed at the 1996 World Food Summit, which states, “[A]ll people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” We refer to this as the healthy diets objective, encompassing SDGs 2 and 3. This will require, in particular, increasing the availability of nutritious, safe, and diverse foods and ensuring adequate and continuous affordable access to, and utilization of, foods that comprise healthy diets; limiting the supply and consumption of foods that are high in refined sugars, salt, and unhealthy fats, and low in essential nutrients and bioactive compounds (e.g., carotenoids, fiber); and safeguarding foods from pathogens and contaminants (Mozaffarian 2016; Willett et al. 2019; Afshin et al. 2019). Consistent with recent HLPE (2020) recommendations, healthy diets must also respect individual food preferences, culture, and aspirations.

The second design objective is equitable and inclusive livelihoods, encompassing SDGs 1, 5, 8, 10, 16, and 17. Poverty is the primary cause of food insecurity throughout the world. A key driver of poverty is relatively low productivity. Most of the world’s poor live in rural areas and work in AFSs. The low economic returns to agricultural production, processing, etc., in rural and traditional systems are a key source of global inequality. Productivity improvements accessible to the poor, therefore, have important equity implications. That is especially true for innovations that boost labor productivity among the poor because their labor power is typically their most valuable asset. They often own little land, livestock, machinery, or other forms of productive capital. People everywhere aspire to equal and inclusive opportunities but are denied basic human rights due to the accidental geography of their birth, the color of their skin, their gender, their sexual orientation, or some other identity marker irrelevant under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. AVCs are potentially powerful avenues to address equity and inclusion objectives, both because they necessarily deliver life-sustaining foods and also because they provide (self- or paid) employment to well more than a billion persons worldwide.

Equity considerations require looking beyond just smallholder farmers and poor consumers to think about workers and small- and medium-sized enterprise owners throughout the AVC. Unsurprisingly, only about 2 percent of urban residents of LMICs work as farmers while about 26 percent work in the post-harvest AVC, as either enterprise owners or employees (Dolislager et al. 2021). Outside of Africa, however, even in rural areas, more people derive their livelihood primarily from AVC SMEs or farm wage labor than from their own farms, especially in Latin America (Dolislager et al. 2021).

In order to advance equity objectives, we must also cease emphasizing narrow measures of crop yields (i.e., output per unit of land cultivated) a partial productivity measure that reflects the returns to owners of land. Why? Because the poor own little or no land. The AFSs we envision for a generation or two from now will, instead, prioritize advances in total factor productivity (TFP), a measure that—when properly constructedFootnote 2—summarizes the returns to all natural and manmade inputs, and especially in worker health and labor productivity. Greater focus on TFP will promote livable incomes for the poorest, who often possess little more than their own time.

Because adverse shocks happen, safety nets are needed so that those unable to work are assured unbroken access to healthy diets. Individuals’ rights to privacy and to the personal data increasingly recordable in a digitizing world should be recognized and respected. Cultural, economic, and political life should reflect broader participation of all interested persons, decentralizing governance power while facilitating enhanced opportunities for coordination among parties.

Third, if the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it is the absolute necessity of building resilience to shocks and stressors.Footnote 3 As we elaborated previously, several lessons emerge from these first months of the greatest pandemic to strike the world in living memory. These lessons apply to a broad range of sources of systemic risk, not just infectious disease pandemics. Most notably, the world faces substantial, and likely growing, risks due to climate change, violent conflicts, trade wars, etc. The likelihood of additional severe disruptions occurring within the coming generation is high.

This leads to the fourth and final design objective: environmental and climate sustainability, encompassing SDGs 6, 7, 11, 12, 13, 14, and 15. For TFP to work as a measure, we must more comprehensively monitor and sustain the natural systems on which AFSs fundamentally depend, and move away from simple partial productivity metrics, such as yield (i.e., output per unit land area cultivated), or reductionist measures of TFP that ignore nature’s inputs into agri-food production. We must develop and consistently employ measures of AFS productivity: maximizing the number of people nourished healthily and sustainably while minimizing environmental and health care costs. We must also rigorously establish the thresholds beyond which agroecosystems and the climate become unlikely to recover from excessive stresses.

This will reduce the unyielding intensification pressure on scarce land and water resources. Land, at multiple scales—from field through landscape to wildland—must be spared for nature, in part to protect humankind from infectious disease. Agricultural drivers—mainly extensification of cultivated lands into forests and wetlands—are associated with more than 25 percent of all infectious diseases, and more than 50 percent of zoonotic diseases, that emerged in humans since the 1940s (Rohr et al. 2019). Anthropogenic land conversion increases the density of species that vector a broader number of dangerous viruses, as these hosts, on average, outcompete non-host species in converted lands (Gibb et al. 2020). We must value “less but better” food, with significant adoption of approaches based on agroecological principles rather than exclusive reliance on external inputs that homogenize the environment. Highly external input intensive production will and should still occur, enhanced by the principles of sustainable intensification, in areas where the net impacts are modest (e.g., avoiding areas of high intrinsic biodiversity). Sustainable intensification based on external inputs can usefully complement agroecological intensification that boosts productivity through implementation of agroecological principles at the plot, farm and landscape levels. Sustainable intensification, the rise of circular economies, and the mainstreaming of agroecological practices will have preserved, or even expanded, the necessary wild or multi-use spaces for other plant and animal species to survive and thrive, on land and below water. Air and water quality will have stabilized at healthy levels. Overall, through changing our demands for food, protecting nature from the expansion of agricultural land into new areas, and farming in more sustainable ways, we will have converted agri-food production from a net source of nearly 30 percent of climate-threatening GHG emissions to wider land use patterns that represent a GHG sink—or “zero net carbon” land use at a minimum—thereby helping mitigate the climate crisis.