figure a

Scientific discovery is neither linear nor predictable. The time it takes to develop breakthrough technologies varies enormously among application domains. Some basic scientific discoveries remain elusive and will need continued, concerted funding and attention in the years and decades ahead. In some cases, the stumbling block is the scientific advancement per se, when important discoveries along the path towards technological readiness have not yet been made. This has been the case, for example, with numerous vaccines, both for humans (e.g., malaria, HIV) and for livestock (e.g., East Coast fever, trypanosomiasis, African swine fever). Research teams must sometimes work for several decades on the science necessary for a breakthrough discovery that can lead to a demonstrably effective, scalable product or impact. Similarly, several emerging options that could revolutionize crop yields (e.g., reconfiguring photosynthetic pathways for greater efficiency, nitrogenase in cereals) have remained elusive but continue to show sufficient promise to merit generous R&D investment. But even when breakthroughs occur, the time to market may be long, often decades.

Promising innovations often do not gain traction, not because the underlying science has proved too difficult but, rather, because the enabling environment essential to development and diffusion is lacking. Most breakthrough science requires financial, institutional, and sociopolitical support in order to advance through pilot stages to achieve impact at scale. It is therefore essential to identify the socio-technical bundles that combine social and scientific elements to unlock the transformative potential of emergent technologies.

Indeed, throughout history all dramatic new technological inventions and impactful innovations have been combinatorial, brought about through the intentional combination of different prior discoveries with the express intent of solving a human need (Arthur 2009). Transformative innovation therefore necessarily involves bundles of (1) scientific and engineering advances that improve the attributes of goods and processes; (2) public policies that induce appropriate behaviors by private actors, both internalizing externalities and advancing coordination that might otherwise fail to emerge spontaneously; and (3) informal private behaviors—the culture of food, if you will—that incentivize and help diffuse innovations as well as pressure public policymakers. Transformation thus requires multiple transitions at once.

One thread that runs through the preceding, lengthy discussion of scores of exciting emergent innovations is that the scientific challenges, while formidable in many cases, may be the least of the obstacles to bringing promising innovations to impactful scale. The “best” or most scientifically elegant technologies only occasionally prevail, often floundering due to cultural, economic, ethical, or political counter-pressures. The agri-food transformations that capture attention are often too narrowly associated with a particular emblematic technology that was central to their success. The sociocultural, policy, and/or institutional changes that enable that new science to turn into transformative technologies are commonly overlooked but are equally important. Hence the importance of bundling.

For example, the Asian Green Revolution, which genuinely transformed Asia’s AFSs, was not just a result of the development of input-responsive high-yielding crop varieties, although these are the emblematic technology of the era. The transformation required a whole ecosystem of structures and institutions to make it work, and this took considerable time to emerge and develop, at least a decade. In the case of the Asian Green Revolution, the ecosystem included public investment in irrigation, transportation and communications infrastructure, input supply arrangements, public pricing, and procurement systems; a set of shared values among a group of philanthropic agencies, government bureaucrats, and international and local scientists to both develop and promote the new technology; and commitments to making the technology an international public good freely available to breeding programs worldwide. Nearly half a century later, these same technologies have failed to transform the AFSs of sub-Saharan Africa precisely because this wider enabling environment has yet to emerge.

Other examples reinforce this point. For example, the 2011 declaration of the eradication of rinderpest (cattle plague)—an animal disease with enormous adverse impact over centuries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa—featured a new vaccine as an emblematic technology but relied equally on a complex ecosystem of global scientific cooperation, cold chain distribution infrastructure, national policy and regulatory changes, awareness campaigns, and internationally coordinated vaccination programs. Like the Green Revolution, it also depended on generous, non-commercial financing and unencumbered intellectual property rights on the vaccine.

As was clear in our earlier example of the simple comparison between rice genetics discoveries—the IR8, IR36, and IR64 varieties of the Green Revolution versus contemporary golden rice—“novel technologies alone are not sufficient to drive agri-food system transformations; instead, they must be accompanied by a wide range of social and institutional factors that enable their deployment” (Herrero et al. 2020, p. 267). Despite having viable transgenic rice varieties containing high levels of beta carotene for more than a decade, these varieties are yet to be produced by farmers independent of scientific trials, let alone consumed by the vitamin A–deficient populations for whom they were developed. A critical missing part of the ecosystem was social license, with major political and ethical opposition emerging in several target countries (Regis 2019).

These successes and failures led Herrero et al. (2020) to describe eight essential elements for accelerating systematic transformation in AFSs (left panel of Fig. 1). These actions complete the socio-cultural fabric of the enabling environment for increasing the chances that promising technologies get adapted to fit a given context, adopted by many, and ultimately scale to achieve the desired societal impacts. Which elements most impactfully combine with which technology depends fundamentally on the context and the technology. But those combinations do not occur without human agency. The eight “transformation accelerators” depicted in Fig. 1 and Herrero et al. (2020) are all human actions: building trust, transforming mindsets, designing market incentives, etc.

Fig. 1
figure 1

Essential elements for accelerating the systemic transformation of agri-food systems (Lefthand figure reproduced from Herrero et al. 2020)

We therefore emphasize socio-technical innovation bundles as appropriately contextualized combinations of science and technology advances that, when combined with specific, appropriate institutional or policy adaptations, exhibit particular promise for advancing one or more design objectives in a particular setting. The task of discovering, adapting, and scaling beneficial innovations is as much one for humanists and social scientists as it is for engineers and natural scientists. Agents throughout AVCs play an active role. Innovation is not just the business of engineers and scientists who think of R&D as their bread-and-butter activities. Table 1 works out a stylized example of the articulation of the need for these accelerators for two promising new upstream technologies described earlier: nitrogen-fixing cereals and circular (livestock) feeds.Footnote 1

Even with appropriately contextualized use of accelerators to enhance uptake of a given technology, many objectives require multiple, complementary interventions and the environment to support those multiple interventions. These often originate in different scientific spheres. A distinct set of multiple, mutually reinforcing innovations may be needed to achieve meaningful results at scale for a given design objective in a particular context. This, too, implies a need for contextualized socio-technical bundling of innovations, albeit for a slightly different purpose than for fostering and accelerating uptake of a given technology.

Figure 2 illustrates the case. Puzzle pieces represent innovations, which draw on different (natural or social) science-based methods (represented by different colors) to generate products, processes, or policies with distinct designs and purposes (represented by different shapes). These combine into different composite shapes to fit the people, place, and time. In this stylized figure, six distinct bundles are developed for half a dozen different objectives and AFS application domains. The right combination for one specific objective—in the enlarged case of bundle 4, reducing micronutrient (i.e., mineral and vitamin) deficiencies in a remote rural and traditional AFS—will differ from the bundle needed in other cases. Progress may require some combination of scientific advances (e.g., genetic improvement of crops through biofortification or inexpensive off-grid solar-powered fruit and vegetable drying and refrigeration technologies), financing (e.g., food assistance funding to enable poor consumers to afford a more diverse, nutrient-rich diet), legislation or regulation (e.g., required iodization of manufactured salt or folate fortification of flour and pasta), and policies (e.g., school feeding programs that feature nutrient-rich foods, and nutrition education to promote food culture, dietary diversity, and healthful food preparation and storage). The key point is that science and engineering can design and adapt the raw materials, but ultimately stakeholders must work together to assemble the right bits into fit-for-purpose combinatorial innovations.

Fig. 2
figure 2

Socio-technical bundles fit for purpose to an objective and context

Table 1 Accelerators for two promising agri-food technologies