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Updated: 3 days ago

By Sohail Inayatullah, Ivana Milojevic, and Hafeez Zainal

Harnessing science, technology, and innovation (STI) is key to meeting the aspiration of efficient, inclusive, resilient, and sustainable, agrifood systems and leveraging emerging opportunities for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Advances in STI have left no aspect of life untouched, and agrifood systems are no exception. 

For example, the promising future of digital technologies is foreseen to multiply with increasing breakthroughs in blockchain, Artificial Intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT), and others, fueled by lower costs and increasing capacity in data applications. 

Numerous foresight studies that have been conducted see technologies and innovations across the entire agrifood system as a key part of the solution for transformative change and emphasize the need for them to be accessible and affordable, signaling equity concerns. The promise is immense, but there are also risks, as rapid developments can outpace the ability of societies to adapt, and existing socioeconomic disparities and negative environmental effects can be exacerbated. 

Therefore, to reap the benefits, it is imperative to evaluate (and anticipate) the context-specific needs of small-scale producers as well as the differential impacts of current and emerging technologies and innovations, including the potential benefits, risks, and unintended consequences as well as the barriers for adoption and diffusion. The commensurate regulatory, ethical, gender, social, environmental and policy issues must be addressed, including at regional and global levels.

Here we articulate emerging technologies and innovations in food and agrifood systems going to the year 2052. This includes 18 emerging issues – relatively unknown in international policy meetings that could have great impacts in the decades to come. 

The purpose of identifying these issues is to alert policymakers of warnings and opportunities so that they can more effectively act now and in the foreseeable future. Some of these issues require immediate policy discussions, while others require longer-term strategic debates, and some will require a watchful policy/strategy eye to see in which direction they will develop.


Emerging issues analysis (EIA) seeks to identify threats and opportunities – issues – before they become unwieldy and expensive to act upon. The method also seeks to identify bellwether localities where new social innovation starts (the future in the present). EIA is used to scan the environment, to discover issues that lie beyond the horizon. These issues tend to have low evidence – marginal support in the literature – but with a potential impact if they move from being a seed of change to a full-fledged tree or forest. 

They are anomalous issues, which some commentators have called black swans (Talib, 2008). Seongwon Park of the Korean National Parliament Assembly calls these cracks in the wall (2021, December 16, personal email). They could bring the house down or could, if acted upon early enough, buttress the safety of the home. Staying with this analogy, cognizance of the emerging issue could lead to a redesign of the home.

Emerging issues analysis was first developed by Graham Molitor in the late 1950s, published in a seminar research paper in 1977, and championed by James Dator (1980), one of the pioneers of the field of Futures Studies in his work for the U.S. legal system in the 1980s and 1990s. 

Using the S-curve, Molitor identified three phases of an issue. The first, at the bottom left of the s-curve, is generally unknown. Over time, if it has traction the issue (citations, articles, comments, laws, conferences,) moves up the s-curve becoming a trend. It then attracts attention from leading think-tanks. Finally, it moves from nascent possibility to reality, becoming an issue that is debated in public media and legislatures with decisions needing to be taken. For example, thirty or so years ago there were discussions on cellular agriculture — as a solution to climate change, as part of the rise of the vegetarian movement, as a more efficient way to produce protein. 

Today, numerous corporations have developed products for sale globally. Some nations are ahead in developing policy, in seeding funding for this innovation (some are even developing the "Internet of Food", food as software), while others are dealing with the immediate issues of hunger and food justice. 

While aspects of cellular agriculture are now a trend – initial products and articles, books, conferences, businesses having sprouted up –  in some areas of the world, other aspects of the disruption of the cow remain beyond the horizon. A particular emerging issue, even if it does not come to fruition, can for the researcher spark discussions that lead to novel and different emerging issues. One can thus track organizations, as well as nations, on the S-Curve in terms of their adoption of a particular issue. While those ahead lead, those behind can watch, learn and make decisions based on more data. But which issues are useful or relevant? 

Based on extensive research on the futures of food and agri-systems, we’ve identified 18 specific issues. We have created a longer text which presents each issue with a general description, a concrete what-if hypothetical, likelihood estimate, keywords, and sources. Here we briefly outline these emerging issues as they are linked to particular domain areas.

The domain areas (emerging technologies and innovations) and emerging issues are: 

These emerging issues were then used as a cornerstone for articulating 4 distinct scenarios on the futures of Agrifood Systems. 


Using the futures wheel through the input of experts we articulated the first and second-order implications of each emerging issue. Then, based on these implications we developed recommendations for the next steps and strategies. Finally, to manage the information, the uncertainties we articulated four scenarios.

Tentative scenarios include: 

1. THE AMAZONS OF FOOD. This is a future of full integration of the supply chain. Drones, sensors, big data, and AI are all used to meet changing consumer needs and predict evolving needs. Large corporations own this food data and develop a global internet of food – food as software. Small scale farmers and other producers are either purchased or go bankrupt. As in the tech industry, those who own the food tech and those who manufacture will maximize profits. While the claims will be for efficiency, the likely outcome will be great inequity. Instead of better production, nutrition, environment, and life, given the consolidation of economic and political power, we will likely see a worsening of conditions in the long run. 

2. FOOD FOR ALL. In this future, technological developments in agrifood systems create food abundance. Food tech developments will include: Soleil, protein from thin air; the Internet of Food (IoF); gene editing and cellular agriculture as well as localized food products through 3D printers to create a world where there is food abundance. These developments will be supported by Big Data and lower energy costs (due to renewables and even fusion). 

3. FOOD TECH FOR THE POOR. In the future, the global food commons helps to create a revolution in decentralized and appropriate food technologies. New technologies are used by the poor, the vulnerable, and small farmers to empower and increase wealth. International organizations and nation-states use AI systems to help the poor better anticipate weather, prices, and create peer-to-peer platform cooperatives. In this future, no one is left behind, the four betters are achieved. 

4. THE GREAT IMBALANCE CONTINUES. New technologies in the food and agrifood systems do not challenge power paradigms, nor can they mitigate the impacts of climate change. The Internet of food is used in wealthy regions for food integration but poorer areas with lower connectivity find themselves becoming worse off. Like the green revolution, the food tech revolution creates new winners and losers. For parts of the world the four betters are achieved, but for many others parts, life on the ground worsens. 


The recommendations for policy makers in the area of agrifood systems were as follows:

  1. In Scenario One – The Amazons of Food, they carry the banner of food justice. They are also concerned about food resilience and dependence on tech systems.

  2. In Scenario Two – Food for All, they ensure food safety, are focused on enabling all so they can self-regulate.

  3. In Scenario Three – Food Tech for the Poor, they lead in creating a world of food justice.

  4. In Scenario Four – The Great Imbalance Continues, they champion the poor, focusing on rebalancing food technologies and wealth. 


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  2. Asian Development Bank (2020). Futures Thinking in Asia and the Pacific. 

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  4. Dator, J. (1980). Emerging issues Analysis in the Hawaii Judiciary. The Hawaii Judiciary. 

  5. Dator, J. (2018). Emerging Issues Analysis: Because of Graham Molitor. World Futures Review. 10(1): 5-10. 

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  23. PWC (2015). The World in 2050.


Professor Sohail Inayatullah is the UNESCO Chair in Futures Studies at Sejahtera Centre for Sustainability and Humanity, IIUM. He is a political scientist/futurist at Tamkang University, Taipei and an Associate at Melbourne Business School, the University of Melbourne. In 2021, he was Futurist-in-Residence (virtual) for the Government of Abu Dhabi. From 2011-2014 he was an Adjunct Professor at the Centre for Policing, Counterterrorism, and Intelligence, Macquarie University, Sydney.  He is listed in the top 2 percent of the world's scientists as measured by the highest impact of citations.

Inayatullah has authored and co-edited twenty-eight books, including: Understanding Sarkar (2002), CLA 3.0: Thirty Years of Transformative Research (2022); From Anticipation to Emancipation (2022); The End of the Cow and other Emerging issues (2022); Futures Thinking in Asia and the Pacific (2020) and What Works: Case Studies in the Practice of Foresight (2015).

Dr. Ivana Milojević (/ˈivənə mɪˈlɔɪəvɪtʃ/), Director of and Metafuture School, is a researcher, writer, and educator with a transdisciplinary professional background spanning sociology, education, gender studies, peace and conflict studies, and futures studies. Since the mid-1990s, Ivana has been actively engaged in delivering speeches, facilitating workshops, and conducting research for various governmental institutions, international associations, and non-governmental organizations across Asia-Pacific, Africa, and Europe. She previously held academic positions at several universities and is the author or editor of some 150 publications (e.g., academic books, book chapters, journal and magazine articles). In 2016-2017, she led the foresight unit at the Centre for Strategic and Policy Studies in Brunei Darussalam. In 2022-2023, Ivana was a Senior Futures Thinking and Foresight Specialist/Consultant with the Asian Development Bank.

Hafeez Zainal is a researcher, youth activist, and change management consultant based in Malaysia. He graduated from the School of Education at the International Islamic University Malaysia in 2022. Hafeez's early career included a role as a Research Assistant for the Sejahtera Centre for Sustainability and Humanity and Research Officer for Member of Parliament. In 2023-2024, he served as a Change Management practitioner at Petronas Digital Sdn Bhd, focusing on digital initiatives. Beyond his professional endeavors, Hafeez is deeply committed to community organizing and youth empowerment. As a co-founder of The Good Society Malaysia, an NGO, he harnesses technology and innovation to advocate for various social issues, aiming to foster positive change and uplift marginalized voices. Additionally, Hafeez is actively involved in training the youth, empowering them to drive meaningful change in their communities.

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