Foresight and innovation in
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How Innovation Unlocks Sustainability In Food System's Transition

Associate Professor at EHL Hospitality Business School
Carlos Martin-Rios darkCarlos Martin-Rios light


In his article, EHL Associate Professor Carlos Martin-Rios discusses the paradox in our food system where, despite having innovative solutions to make it sustainable and efficient, we continue to adhere to unsustainable practices. This paradox reflects the tension between embracing new technologies and maintaining the status quo, particularly in the face of challenges like population growth, climate change, and resource scarcity. The hospitality and food services sectors, significant contributors to and influencers of the food system, are highlighted as areas where this paradox is stark. Despite the availability of sustainable options, such as farm-to-table initiatives and eco-friendly practices in hotels, there's a noticeable lag in widespread adoption. The article emphasizes the urgency of addressing this gap, encouraging these industries to lead in adopting sustainable practices. This shift is not only essential for the environment but also crucial for their own survival and relevance in a rapidly evolving, eco-conscious world.

In our rapidly evolving world, where technological advancements abound and information flows freely, we find ourselves amidst a paradox. We are aware of innovative solutions that could revolutionize our food systems, making them more sustainable, efficient, and equitable. Yet, we continue to grapple with the persistence of unsustainable practices that harm the environment and compromise our future. This paradox prompts us to explore a critical question: What is preventing us from fully embracing the innovative solutions that can transform our food system into a sustainable model?

Understanding the Food System Paradox

Our food system paradox is, at its core, a reflection of the tension between innovation and the status quo. We are living in an age where the agricultural industry is not only ripe for innovation but, more importantly, in dire need of it. A rapidly growing global population, climate change, diminishing natural resources, and socio-economic disparities are among the pressing issues that demand transformation. It is clear that the status quo is unsustainable. Innovations are available and accessible, yet their integration into the food system remains inadequate. We must delve into the root causes of this gap and seek pathways to bridge it.

In the realm of hospitality and food services, this paradox is especially pronounced. These sectors are not only integral components of the food system but also significant contributors to its challenges and opportunities. From farm-to-table dining experiences that emphasize local and sustainable sourcing to hotel chains implementing eco-friendly practices, the hospitality and food services industry has the potential to play a pivotal role in driving innovation and sustainability. However, the gap between the availability of sustainable practices and their widespread adoption persists, highlighting the need for a holistic approach in addressing sustainability in these sectors.

The root causes

  1. Resistance to change: A prominent barrier to innovation in the food system is resistance to change. Traditional practices have been deeply entrenched in food producers, manufacturers, distributors, and consumers for generations. Farmers and stakeholders are often hesitant to adopt new methods or technologies due to uncertainty and fear of failure. Wholesalers and retailers continue to establish barriers in food standards and prices that make it difficult to overcome longstanding detrimental practices.
  2. Economic interests: The existing industrial food complex wields significant economic power. Corporations and stakeholders invested in this complex may perceive sustainability-driven innovations as threats to their established interests. As a result, they may hinder or slow the adoption of sustainable practices.
  3. Regulatory and policy challenges: Regulatory and policy frameworks (or the lack of thereof) that govern the food system may not be aligned with the imperatives of sustainability. These regulations can inadvertently disincentivize innovation and sustainable practices by favoring established modes of production and distribution.
  4. Lack of collaboration in the value chain: Many innovative solutions exist but are not widely known or accessible to all stakeholders in the food system. This lack of awareness hinders the diffusion of innovations, emphasizing the pressing need to develop collaborative relationships among all stakeholders in the food value chain and bridge the sustainability gap.
  5. Consumer behavior: Sustainable food remains an upscale, mostly inaccessible market niche. Consumer preferences and behavior play a crucial role in shaping the food system. While there is a growing demand for sustainable products, the allure of convenience and lower costs often takes precedence. This dynamic presents a challenge for innovative, sustainable alternative.

    Avenues to Overcome the Divide

    • Policy alignment: Supranational institutions, national and regional governments, and regulatory bodies must reevaluate and update food policies to align with the goals of sustainability. This includes incentivizing sustainable farming practices, establishing subsidies for green technologies, defining standards for sustainability in the food industry, and creating incentives to facilitate the transition in retailers, hospitality, and food services.
    • Private/public consortiums for Research and Development: Continued investment in R&D is key to identifying and refining innovative solutions. Collaboration between the public and private sectors can drive this progress, with a focus on technology and practices that promote sustainability. While research consortiums between the private sector and universities in food science and food production are common, there are still few examples of such collaborative chairs and research centers between universities and hospitality and food service chain businesses.
    • Collaborative initiatives: Multi-stakeholder collaborations can foster a holistic approach to sustainability. Bringing together farmers, food producers, policymakers, and consumers can lead to integrated solutions that address the complexity of the food system.
    • Education, training and awareness: An essential first step is to educate stakeholders about the innovative solutions available. Awareness campaigns, training programs, and collaborative platforms can facilitate knowledge transfer and promote sustainable practices.

      Best practices in innovation

      To illustrate the potential of innovative solutions in transforming the food system, let's explore a few notable case studies:

      • Regenerative agriculture: Regenerative agriculture is an innovative and sustainable approach to farming that focuses on restoring and enhancing soil health while sequestering carbon. This method goes beyond traditional sustainable agriculture by actively improving the land's ecological integrity. It often involves techniques like cover cropping, reduced tillage, and crop rotation. By regenerating the land, this approach not only contributes to soil and environmental health but also yields more nutritious crops. Embracing regenerative agriculture, rather than solely focusing on local production, holds the potential to significantly enhance the sustainability of the food industry while extending social benefits to a broader demographic. It's important to recognize that agriculture can serve as a powerful tool for poverty reduction, income elevation, and improved food security, particularly for the global population residing in rural areas and predominantly engaged in farming. Although the notion of promoting localized food systems may seem appealing, it's worth acknowledging that an exclusive emphasis on local economies can inadvertently exacerbate global inequalities. As highlighted by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), there are big income disparities across farmers in Europe, South America and Africa. Thus, the path to a sustainable and equitable food system may require a more nuanced and holistic approach.
      • Blockchain in supply chains: Blockchain technology is revolutionizing food supply chains. It creates a decentralized and tamper-proof ledger of transactions and product information. This innovation enhances transparency and traceability, allowing stakeholders to verify the origin and quality of products. For example, if a consumer is buying regenerative or organic produce, blockchain can provide an unbroken record of its journey from the farm to plate. This supports ethical and sustainable choices, as well as helps in the rapid identification and management of food safety issues.
      • Food waste innovations: Food waste is a significant global problem. Innovations in this area are reducing waste throughout the food system. For instance, new AI technologies assess the amount of food waste produced in restaurants, improving prevention measures while providing cost-effective meals. In food production, technology helps optimize crop yields and reduce losses. The hospitality sector is witnessing innovations in food preservation methods, like smart refrigeration systems that monitor and adjust temperatures to prolong the shelf life of ingredients. Furthermore, some hotels and restaurants have adopted strategies to repurpose food waste into new dishes contributing to a more sustainable food system.
      • Smart Kitchen technologies: In the hospitality sector, smart kitchen technologies are gaining ground. These innovations include appliances, such as intelligent ovens and refrigerators, that optimize energy usage and food storage. Additionally, automated kitchen systems can monitor and control cooking processes, ensuring consistency and reducing food waste. Furthermore, AI-powered menu planning and inventory management systems are helping restaurants and hotels make more informed decisions, minimize over-purchasing, and ultimately reduce food waste. These technologies not only enhance sustainability but also improve operational efficiency in the hospitality industry.


        The coexistence of innovative solutions for a sustainable food system and our persistent failure to embrace them defines a paradox of our times. In the face of global challenges like climate change, resource depletion, and food security, embracing innovation in our food system is not merely an option but a necessity.

        It is imperative that we delve into the root causes of this gap and seek pathways to bridge it not only within the broader food system but also specifically within the domains of hospitality and food services. These sectors must be at the forefront of embracing innovative solutions and practices that promote sustainability, reduce waste, and meet the evolving expectations of environmentally conscious consumers. By doing so, they can not only contribute to the transformation of the food system but also enhance their own resilience and relevance in an ever-changing world.

        Additional Reading

        • Martin-Rios, C (2023). Solving sustainability challenges: The role of digital technologies and tech startups. EHL Industry Report. Access to report
        • Martin-Rios, C., Rogenhofer, J., & Alvarado, M. S. (2022). The true cost of food waste: Tackling the managerial challenges of the food supply chain. Trends in Food Science & Technology, 131, 190-195 Access to article
        • Martin-Rios, C., Demen-Meier, C., Gössling, S., & Cornuz, C. (2018). Food waste management innovations in the foodservice industry. Waste management, 79, 196-206. Access to article
        • Martin-Rios, C., & Ciobanu, T. (2019). Hospitality innovation strategies: An analysis of success factors and challenges. Tourism Management, 70, 218-229. Access to article
        • Martin-Rios, C., (2019). Hospitality innovation strategy in practice. Access to report