As we look 25–50 years, or more, into the future, we must also keep in mind how very different tomorrow’s world will inevitably look. Three big, inevitable changes stand out, with serious implications for AFS and AVC innovations.Footnote 1

figure a

First, the geography of human populations will shift markedly. The world became majority urban in 2007, and by 2050 the UN projects that 68 percent will live in cities (UN DESA 2019). This means elongated supply chains from rural breadbasket areas but also puts a premium on land-saving technologies that enable short supply chains serving significant concentrations of consumers.

The best recent projections forecast global population peaking in about 2064 at roughly 9.7 billion people (Vollset et al. 2020), an increase of roughly one-quarter of today’s 7.8 billion. Even more striking, however, will be the dramatic shift in population from Europe and East Asia, where many countries’ populations have already peaked or will peak this decade, to Sub-Saharan Africa, where population will continue on an upward trajectory well into the next century (Fig. 1). This stems directly from the massive youth bulge in sub-Saharan Africa, where the median age is just 19 years, half of that in Europe or North America and far below even the median age of 31 in Asia and Latin America (UN Population Prospects 2019). Since more than 70 percent of food is eaten in the country in which the source commodity was grown (D’Odorico et al. 2014) and because greenhouse gas emissions typically rise with the geographic length of the supply chain, spatial patterns of population growth will compel increased attention to African AFSs and AVCs for reasons associated with all four of the design objectives.

Fig. 1
figure 1

(Data Source Vollset et al. 2020)

Human population projections by world region, 1950–2100. Colored lines reflect regional population. Historical estimates are from 1950 to 2017, and population is projected from 2018 to 2100. Peak population and year are labeled. The peak global population is additionally reflected by the red dashed line in 2064

The second major, inevitable driver of AVC changes will be income growth, especially in today’s LMICs.Footnote 2 Income growth fuels increased consumer demand for food (Fukase and Martin 2020). This matters mainly because, in the market-based economies that drive AVCs today and indefinitely into the future, (often latent) consumer demand is the biggest driver by far of product and process innovation as firms adapt in search of greater market share and profits. Indeed, income growth patterns and the differential way income growth translates into food demand growth in poorer versus richer communities, along with population growth patterns mean that Africa will be the main locus of food market expansion over the rest of this century (Box 1).

FormalPara Box 1: Turn attention to Africa

Researchers and policymakers increasingly recognize that in order to address the myriad challenges facing global AFSs and to meet the SDGs, we must actively attend to the needs of smallholder farmers and poor consumers in rural and traditional systems, most of them in Africa and Asia. A plurality of the world’s people live in rural and traditional systems (Table 1 in Chapter 1), and they are disproportionately unlikely to be able to afford a nutritious diet (Bai et al. 2020) and suffer the world’s lowest agricultural productivity (Fuglie et al. 2020). These regions most urgently need investments to co-create socio-technical bundles—the combinations of technological, policy, and institutional innovations we advocate for below—to advance HERS objectives, as efforts such as CERES2030 ( have demonstrated.

What remains less well recognized is that growth in agri-food market opportunities arising from food demand expansion will occur overwhelmingly in Africa (Barrett 2021). In today’s roughly US$8 trillion global food market, African purchases account for less than ten percent. That will change dramatically in the decades ahead. Food demand growth is largely a function of three parameters: growth in the number of people eating, the rate of per person income growth for those consumers, and the share of that income growth that converts into food demand (what economists call the “income elasticity of demand for food”). Global population growth to the end of the century will concentrate almost exclusively in Africa (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2
figure 2

(Data Source Thurlow 2020)

Off-farm share of agri-food system GDP and employment by income per capita. Each data point reflects a country’s off-farm share of employment and GDP in the AFS in the most recently reported year (generally 2015). Dashed line shows regression line relating expected share to income per capita, with 95 percent confidence bands interval reflected by dotted lines

The income elasticity of demand for food falls rapidly as incomes grow to, and through, the middle-income range. So the same income growth in Africa, now the world’s poorest continent, will translate into much greater (double or triple) food demand expansion than in other world regions. As a result of just population growth and income elasticity of demand differences, even if Africa’s per capita income growth does not continue to outpace the rest of the world, as it did 2010–2019, a majority of global food demand growth to 2100 will occur in Africa, at least tripling the region’s global market share. Under more aggressive growth scenarios, the region could easily account for three-quarters of global food demand growth to 2100. This trend is already well underway, as the inflation-adjusted annual sales growth in Africa of food retail grocery and food service chains has far outpaced that of other world regions over the past decade (Barrett et al., in press).

Moreover, income growth does not scale food demand equally across products and processes. It mainly boosts higher-quality foods, foods that are more processed and varied, and those that are more resource-intensive (e.g., animal source proteins) as well as food prepared and eaten away from consumers’ homes. The biggest demand response to income growth is non-nutritive quality attributes—appearance, convenience, safety, social status, storability, taste, and variety—as well as perceived environmental or social attributes associated with the production process (Barrett et al., in press). This naturally concentrates value addition and employment growth in the post-farmgate portions of AVCs (Thurlow et al. 2019; Yi et al. 2021), where many food product and process innovations originate, which comes through clearly when looking at the relationship between incomes and the off-farm share of both AVC employment and value addition (Fig. 2).

Third, given climate change already baked into our atmospheric systems due to GHGs of recent decades, Earth will be warmer, with changes to the start and duration of growing seasons; more severe and frequent storms, droughts, and floods; and rising sea levels, and greater irregularities (IPCC 2018). AFSs must be prepared for such conditions. Coastal production systems must adapt, logistics infrastructure must be hardened or moved, and vulnerable populations must be displaced to higher ground. Increased water scarcity, higher temperatures, and higher atmospheric CO2 concentrations will lead to lower nutrient density in some crops and forage species; greater stress on crops, livestock, and the people who tend them; and changes in the prevalence and distribution of pests and diseases. International trade options will be increasingly important to enable rapid adaptation to pronounced regional differences in climate fluctuations (Janssens et al. 2020).

The existential threat posed by failure to get better control over both the climate and the parallel species extinction crises will compel dedicating more land to carbon sequestration in trees and soils, to habitat conservation to preserve wild species and buffer human populations against dangerous zoonoses, and to the production of renewable geothermal, solar, and wind energy to displace fossil fuels consumption. All of these functions require converting rural lands from agriculture and protecting them from industrial and residential expansion in the face of expanding cities. This will compel a partial de-agrarianization of food systems, that is, steadily reducing the land and water footprint of food production through substituting capital for land and water inputs to absorb a rising share of growing food demand (Barrett 2021).

Meanwhile, income growth will almost surely increase consumers’ willingness to pay for foods’ non-nutritive credence attributesFootnote 3 related to GHG emissions, environmental sustainability, animal welfare, working conditions, etc., all of which are easier to trace and certify in shorter supply chains. Increasingly urban demand and heightened consumer concerns about long supply chains in the aftermath of pandemic disruptions and trade wars will likely reinforce these patterns, as might advances in household-scale renewable energy generation and 3-D printing that make micro-scale, personalized food production increasingly viable. All of this favors emergent controlled environment agriculture, especially to produce higher-value fresh fruits and vegetables, and precision fermentation and tissue engineering methods to produce higher-value proteins to compete with traditional livestock and seafood products, as well as circular feeds designs to reduce the marine and land footprint of livestock feed production. The paths such transformations follow remain to be charted, however.

We describe these three key drivers as external to AFSs because each process will advance regardless of the path AFSs follow. But make no mistake, AFS innovation feeds back into demographic transitions, income growth, and the climate and extinction crises. Indeed, we face real climate, environmental, health, and social dangers today and in the decades ahead in part because the past century’s AFS innovations have focused so tightly on boosting agricultural productivity, especially output per unit area cultivate (i.e., yields), to the exclusion of other objectives. Nudging the coming generation of AFS innovations in better directions requires envisioning a broader set of shared objectives.