Food and Water

How to maintain global food security during a ‘polycrisis’

Food crisis: Young woman holding ipad in front of an agricultural facility.

The venture capital industry is stepping in to bolster food security, specifically the AgTech sector. Image: WEF/iStockphoto

Alloysius Attah
Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder, Farmerline Group
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  • We are in a period of ‘polycrisis’ when simultaneous interlinking, catastrophic events happen that pull and tug on each other.
  • Fixing the present food crisis will require help from the VC industry, specifically AgTech.
  • Democratising the new technologies brought to us by both VC and philanthropy can alleviate many of the problems the sector faces.

Scientists recently announced the beginning of El Nino, a disruptive weather pattern brought on by warming oceans that will impact global agriculture, trade and health. This warming effect could last the best part of a decade.

Have you read?

The last “very strong” El Niño in 2015 was the hottest since records began, with rippling impacts across the world. In Africa, it caused droughts, extreme flooding, malnutrition and disease, devastating the livelihoods of smallholder farmers in the region. This one could be even worse.

And this is just one new event layered upon years of disruption and a steadily warming earth, where a 1.5°Celsius increase is already taken as read. Recently, we have seen the effects of wildfires reach New York City, floods in Pakistan, famine and drought in the Horn of Africa, and permafrost thawing in Siberia.

As termed by the noted historian Adam Tooze, we are in a period of “polycrisis”, the simultaneous occurrence of interlinking, compounding catastrophic events that pull and tug on each other in disastrous ways.

As an example, when Ukraine, the breadbasket of Europe, was cut off from the world, the ramifications were wide-ranging, causing immeasurable damage to economies across Europe, food shortages in Egypt and Libya, and interlocking with systems already suffering from climate change, soaring energy prices and the after-effects of COVID-19.

Agriculture lifelines

Back at the source, agriculture is the backbone of many emerging economies around the world, employing large numbers of people and contributing significantly to GDP, but also contributing to up to a third of emissions.

This bedrock of agriculture materially affects and constrains the societies built on them; Wangari Maathai, who went on to win the Nobel Prize, keenly understood the interlinking nature between deforestation, democracy, women's rights, international solidarity and political stability, mobilising women across Africa to address them all together.

The same multi-pronged effort may be needed again, as a resurgent lack of stability in agriculture caused by the climate crisis risks toppling governments and ballooning forced migration. As The Economist put it, fixing the present food catastrophe is “everyone’s business”.

Luckily, there are institutions to help. Stepping in to extend that lifeline is the venture capital (VC) industry, specifically the “AgTech” sector, which has seen explosive growth over the past decade.

McKinsey & Company found that the AgTech industry received $18.2 billion of venture funding in 2021, 20 times more than in 2012, growing at double the pace of the VC industry writ large.

The AgTech industry is varied and expansive. It consists of deep-tech startups pioneering new hardware, vertical farming, lab-grown meat, autonomous machinery, drones, weather-resistant crops, microbial fungi for carbon sequestration and other magical tools.

On the other end of the corporeal scale, new financial mechanisms and carbon offset markets are being put in place, allowing farmers to tap into new revenue streams from their environmentally-conscious activities.

Somewhere in the middle, phygital (physical plus digital) startups like mine, Farmerline, provide farmers with access to the tools needed to build resilience, including weather data, farming techniques, flexible financing, high-quality inputs – for example, organic soil-nourishing fertiliser, drought-resistant seeds and equipment – as well as access to global commodity markets.

Doubling down on AgTech

However, AgTech has seen a fall in investment since the high of 2021, and with interest rates higher than ever, this capital drought could see many great innovations and beneficial technologies go unused by those who need them most.


What is the World Economic Forum doing to help ensure global food security?

Instead of stepping back, we must double down on investment and institutional support for climate-smart agriculture and food systems innovation. This will help improve the stability of farmers, bring down emissions, and maybe even keep us within 1.5°C.

At the root of all this is the farmer. Having grown up on my auntie’s farm in Ghana, I understand first-hand the tumultuous economic journey every farmer has to go through, and the financial implications and risks they take with every new piece of technology they purchase. This knowledge has only grown from listening and learning from the 1.7 million farmers in our network.

If we are going to guarantee food security, we must ensure that adoption is frictionless and affordable for smallholder farmers. This starts with effective education to increase the adoption, competitive financing to increase affordability, and efficient distribution to the last mile where most farmers and indigenous agribusinesses live and work. Their concerns must be addressed, their financial precarity settled and their investment de-risked. The benefits of these actions will go so far beyond the farms that it is economically and socially unsustainable not to take this course.

The next decade could see a collapse in agricultural capacity across Africa and Asia as the climate crisis advances and despite an ever-increasing number of people needing to be fed. These countries that have historically contributed so little to climate change yet are most affected by it must be included, and invested in.

Democratising the new technologies brought to us by both venture capital and philanthropy can alleviate many of the problems the sector faces. But for this to happen, the viable solutions already being used in emerging markets must be brought to the forefront. To ignore this and to focus just on the tools and resources used in the West would be to the detriment of us all.

To echo Vanessa Nakate, the brave activist from Uganda and founder of the Rise Up Movement, this is not a crisis in the far future, it is a crisis now.

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