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Inclusive systems innovation: our opportunity for a future-fit food system

12 November 2021

Innovation is vital as we work to transform our food system, but we must ensure no one is left behind. How does inclusive systems innovation enable everyone to become involved and benefit?

The challenges within our food system cannot be tackled without inclusion. As we seek solutions to sustainably feed our surging population in changing and unstable climates, we need all voices to be heard and for ideas to be developed by - and for - every part of the food system. 

Connecting the dots and moving beyond the traditional linear ‘food chain’ model means we can better deploy systems approaches where challenges are no longer tackled in isolation and collaboration becomes the norm. We are quickly learning that climate, health and food are all interconnected and that by protecting our planet and regenerating our soils, food productivity will not only become more efficient but food will become more nutritious and plentiful. 

If we listen to each other, provide opportunities for collaboration and consider how our decisions may impact others, our food system will be future-fit and the impacts will be felt globally, on our environment and by society. At the COP26 climate change conference, our CEO Dr. Andy Zynga explained that, with momentum for systems change, the time is now: “In the past companies and organisations were thinking in terms of their own silos but now we understand that everything is interconnected...people are beginning to understand the enormity of the task at hand.” And this enormous task requires us to consider the people within it.

What are the inclusivity challenges within our food system?

Agriculture and food related industries and services provide over 44 million jobs in the EU (1). In order to create a food system that is truly creative, innovative and entrepreneurial, we need these jobs to be made up of diverse groups of people, with diverse skills and diverse perspectives. 

However, currently they are often made up by majority demographics. From gender and age to business size and financial capacity, it is important to actively include those who may be excluded or marginalised to play their part in the innovation process. 

The majority of food supply workers in the EU are male (59%), with some sectors such as fishing and aquaculture recording an 88% male workforce (2). In fact, Germany is the only EU Member State where women are predominant in the food supply workforce (52%) (2).

When considering diversity by age groups, over one-third (38%) of people employed in the EU food supply sector are aged 35 to 49, while people aged 50 or above account for 34% and those aged 15-34 for just 28% (2). Only five EU Member States (Cyprus, Denmark, Malta, the Netherlands and Sweden) have their workers aged 15-34 dominating the food supply sector (2).

Narrowing these gaps and improving inclusivity can contribute to the achievement of all 17 of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). From gender equality (Goal 5) to reduced inequalities (Goal 10), the SDGs represent how sustainable growth goes hand in hand with inclusion, equality and diversity.

Ensuring no one is left behind must be central to all innovation and development within any sector. Sustainable agricultural technologies, for example, must not only be developed by and for large-scale farms, but be co-created by and made accessible to farms of every size. There are approximately 10.5 million agricultural holdings in the EU, two-thirds of which are less than five hectares in size (3). Small farms tend to be managed by older farmers who are ‘less likely to have participated in professional training’, and larger farms tend to be managed by younger farmers (4). This could be linked to higher levels of education or access to professional training courses and, in turn, ‘may lead to the introduction of new and innovative farming practices’ (4). This represents the importance of sharing knowledge and expertise across generations, between communities and stakeholders, ensuring no one is left behind and has access to new technologies, ideas and innovation.

What is inclusive systems innovation?

Inclusive systems innovation enables everyone to become involved and benefit, and is essential to building a strong food system for us all. This requires all parts of the food system to work together to come up with innovative solutions to the huge food challenges our world is currently facing. Small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), for example, constitute at least half the food system but often have ‘quiet and isolated voces’ (5), representing the need for an inclusive systems approach.

This should consider a diverse range of stakeholders within the agrifood sector itself, as well as include underrepresented groups such as women, young people, and indigenous and traditional communities. By creating a larger, more full-rounded picture of the challenges faced at all levels, and the  solutions needed, innovation and co-creation can achieve greater impact for more people.

Co-creation is a process of collaborative innovation between key strategic parties and target groups, including consumers. Ideas are identified, shaped and improved together, collaboratively and transparently. It starts in the early stages of innovation development and the cooperation continues throughout all phases such as ideation, design and implementation, whereby the results are mutually beneficial and accessible to all involved parties, including consumers. At EIT Food our focus on co-creation means that we connect stakeholders right across the food system to drive change through collective learning, problem solving and invention. 

“Systems innovation is now not only accepted but encouraged by world leaders and company leaders as the way to go forward. There is no way to go linear.”

Dr. Andy Zynga, CEO of EIT Food 

Involving everyone in food systems innovation

A system approach to innovation must include all parts of the food system, including consumers. As the ultimate decision makers when it comes to deciding which foods to buy and consume, it is important for consumers to have their voice heard and to have access to the innovation and design thinking processes. Design thinking is a circular iterative process that redefines problems and creates innovative solutions to prototype and test, based on user needs, demands and challenge assumptions. 

At EIT Food, one way we are piloting this approach is through our RIS Consumer Engagement Labs. These pre-competitive workshops give consumers the chance to co-create and focus on ideation or development of new product concepts in collaboration with university researchers, industries, SMEs or startups. 

EIT Food also recently launched an innovation funding call, open to everyone. For the past five years, EIT Food has launched a series of innovation funding calls which have been open to current members of our community, but the launch of this call means an even greater breadth of knowledge, expertise and innovation can be reached. This means that those who may not have had access to funding opportunities or network partners can now enter a period of growth to scale transformative agrifood solutions. 

"Through this new funding call, we will support the development and application of advanced research, technology solutions and transformative business ideas and practices which strive to solve major systemic barriers to impact within the food system.”

Paola Giavedoni, Director of Innovation at EIT Food 

Enabling young people to become active agents of change

Empowering the voices of underrepresented groups is also important. Generation Z, for example, which consists of young people born after 1995/1996, are considered the most diverse generation when it comes to culture and heritage as well as the best educated in terms of level of education (6), but often do not have opportunities to co-create with industry stakeholders. These are the people who will inherit the food system. What we do now will impact them the most, however with approximately another 15 years before they form the majority of the voting age population, with ‘millennials' born between 1981 and 1995/1996 (6), it is important for us to find ways for their voices to be heard now.

The recent EIT Food report, ‘Our Food, Our Food System’, highlighted a demand from this generation to have their say about the future of the food system and which solutions are needed. Approximately 65% of young people said they would consider a career in food education or food innovation (7), revealing a drive to take part in the future development of the food system. As a result of this research, EIT Food recruited 10 young ‘FutureFoodMakers’ to present their needs and demands to food sector stakeholders and policymakers. Read more about the FutureFoodMakers here.

“I strongly believe this is my chance as a young European to take action to shape the future of food for my generation and others and create a stronger European society as a result.”  

Kari Nöelken, EIT Food FutureFoodMaker 


Finding the balance of gender equity

Another key challenge within the agrifood sector is gender equity. Of the one billion people employed globally in agriculture, women make up only 38% (8) and often face barriers within the agrifood sector. From a lack of opportunities to enter the sector and reach leadership positions to limited access to finance, change is needed within the food system to advance gender equity. In a recent EIT Food study into gender equity in agrifood entrepreneurship, it was revealed that up to 75% of women have experienced negative gender bias during their life or/and as an entrepreneur (9).

“The whole question is about having a balance of people working on the issue…over the last 60 years, solutions have been dominated by just 50% of people on the planet.”

Focus group participant: Female agrifood tech entrepreneurs

Improving gender equity in the EU is not only important for inclusive systems innovation; it could create up to 10.5 million extra jobs by 2050 and boost the EU economy by €1.95 - €3.15 trillion (10).

Projects such as Empowering Women in Agrifood (EWA) aim to overcome the gender gap by promoting inclusivity and diversity between business founders and increasing opportunities for female-founded startups. As part of the project, 80 women are being upskilled in entrepreneurship, receiving personalised mentoring and training as well as access to prizes of up to €10,000 to accelerate their innovations. 

"We will never achieve the UN SDGs and create a fair, sustainable, and trusted food system without a fair and equitable startup ecosystem in place. Not only is this the right thing to do, but it also makes business sense."

Lukxmi Balathasan, EIT Food Seedbed Incubator Programme Manager

The WE Lead Food programme is also creating a network of women leaders who wish to drive change, innovation and sustainability within the food sector. The programme equips women with the tools to make differences and achieve results. The network is open to all discipline backgrounds including research, business, policy and civil society members.

“If you have gender-balanced teams and, importantly, gender-balanced top management, businesses are more likely to employ sustainable practices. Therefore, the more women we can get starting businesses and taking senior management positions, the more likely we are to deliver a sustainable food system.”

Shima Barakat, University of Cambridge, WE Lead Food programme lead 


The Future of Food and inclusive systems innovation

The future of the food system is dependent on systems change, and open dialogue between agrifood sector stakeholders and policymakers is crucial in this. As the world’s largest and most dynamic food innovation community, we believe it is our role to provide spaces for these conversations and connections and to use our diverse network to bring together the diverse groups of stakeholders needed to drive this transformation.

The EIT Food Future of Food conference, taking place between 30 November – 1 December 2021, provides a high-level platform to discuss future trends and priorities in food innovation in Europe. Day two of the conference will focus on ‘building an inclusive food system’ with sessions such as ‘Bridging the gender gap’ and ‘How skills drive the transformation of the food system.’ Find out more about the event here.

We are at a tipping point and the future of our food is at risk. Only by working together can we build a food system which works for us all. 


  1. European Union: Agriculture: Vibrant rural areas and quality agricultural products
  2. Eurostat: Employment in food supply across EU regions
  3. Eurostat: Farms and farmland in the European Union - statistics
  4. Eurostat: Small and large farms in the EU - statistics from the farm structure survey
  5. United Nations Food Systems Summit 2021: A small business agenda
  6. European Parliamentary Research Service: Next generation or lost generation? Children, young people and the pandemic 
  7. EIT Food: Our Food, Our Food System
  8. FAO: Labour
  9. EIT Food: Female agrifood tech entrepreneurs
  10. European Institute for Gender Equity: Economic benefits of gender equality in the European Union
EIT Food

About The Author: EIT Food

EIT Food is Europe’s leading food innovation initiative, working to make the food system more sustainable, healthy and trusted.

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