Agri-Food Systems Transformation: A 4Ss Recipe for Sustainable Growth

11 Mar 2024
Agri-Food Systems Transformation: A 4Ss Recipe for Sustainable Growth
by Aukrit Unahalekhaka The global agri-food system faces a critical challenge: achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 requires tackling Scope 3 emissions embedded within supply chains, which can account for over 70% of an agri-food company’s carbon footprint. This is especially pressing for agriculture, a sector struggling to feed a growing population under climate adversity. Thailand, a major agricultural producer, serves as a prime example. Here, Scope 3 emissions, largely from smallholder farms, make up a significant portion of the industry’s footprint. To achieve true sustainability, a global paradigm shift is needed – a move towards Smart, Sustainable, Secure, and Socially Equitable (4Ss) food systems. This article explores the limitations of the current system, the societal and economic benefits of a 4Ss approach, and identifies key levers for change, all empowered by digital transformation. While we focus on Thailand’s agri-food sector, the lessons learned and solutions explored here are applicable to other developing economies around the world. By embracing digital technologies, fostering collaboration across the value chain, and prioritizing responsible sourcing, countries can unlock a powerful source of innovation and ensure a resilient and sustainable food future for themselves and the planet. Thailand’s Agri-Food Sector: A National Powerhouse The need for a sustainable food system in Thailand goes beyond simply following global trends. Agriculture is a cornerstone of the Thai economy, with food and agricultural products serving as the nation’s flagship exports. These exports generate significant revenue, placing Thailand among the world’s leading exporters of rice, sugarcane, rubber, and canned goods. Furthermore, over 40% of Thailand’s population – a substantial portion of its workforce – are smallholder farmers. These farmers play a critical role in ensuring national food security and contributing to the vibrant rural economy. However, the traditional agricultural practices employed by many of these smallholders often contribute to the very Scope 3 emissions that threaten the sector’s long-term viability. The irony is that agriculture, while a contributor to climate change, is also heavily impacted by it. Floods and droughts pose ever-increasing risks, highlighting the urgent need for these farmers to adopt new technologies and innovative practices to transform their agricultural methods. Challenges with Thailand’s Agri-Food System Low Farm Yields and Vulnerability: Many Thai farmers, particularly smallholders, struggle with low productivity due to traditional practices and limited access to technology. This makes them vulnerable to market fluctuations and price volatility. Climate change further exacerbates these challenges, with extreme weather events impacting harvests and livelihoods. Social Disparity and Limited Uplift: The current system often fails to deliver equitable benefits throughout the supply chain. Smallholder farmers frequently receive a disproportionately small share of the final consumer price. This limits their ability to invest in technology, improve practices, and secure a sustainable income. Lack of Transparency and Traceability: Opaque supply chains make it difficult for consumers to understand the environmental and social impact of their food choices. This lack of transparency can also hinder access to premium markets that increasingly value responsible sourcing. The 4Ss Food System: A Win-Win for Sustainability and Growth This unique combination of economic importance and a reliance on small-scale producers underscores the urgency for Thailand to embrace a Smart, Sustainable, Secure, and Socially Equitable (4Ss) food system. By harnessing digital technologies and fostering collaboration, Thailand’s agri-food sector can not only achieve environmental sustainability but also empower its smallholder farmers and maintain its position as a global food leader:
  • Smart: AI-driven precision agriculture, sensor-based irrigation, and satellite-based farm monitoring platform can significantly improve farm yields and resource efficiency. By providing real-time insights into farm performance, weather patterns, and soil conditions, digital tools empower farmers to make data-driven decisions, adapt to climate change, and build resilience against extreme weather events.
  • Sustainable: Digital tools combined with sustainable practices like Alternate Wetting and Drying (AWD) for rice farming can significantly reduce the environmental footprint of Thai agriculture. This includes minimizing water usage, optimizing fertilizer application, and promoting soil health – all contributing to a more sustainable future.
  • Secure: Blockchain technology can facilitate secure and transparent food traceability from farm to fork. This builds consumer trust in the safety and origin of Thai food, while also providing a competitive edge in the global market.
  • Socially Equitable: Direct sourcing partnerships between agri-food companies and smallholder farmers, coupled with fair pricing mechanisms, ensure a more equitable distribution of profits within the supply chain. Furthermore, knowledge-sharing programs and capacity building initiatives can equip farmers with the skills and technologies needed to adopt sustainable practices and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This fosters a win-win scenario where a secure, sustainable supply chain for agri-food companies are achieved alongside improved livelihoods for smallholder farmers.
Collaboration: The Engine of Change A successful transition to a 4Ss food system demands a collaborative effort across the entire value chain. Agri-food businesses must champion sustainable sourcing, invest in user-friendly digital solutions for smallholders, and establish fair pricing that reflects environmental and social costs. Financial institutions, in partnership with governments, can play a critical role by developing innovative financial instruments that ease the burden of data collection, monitoring practices, and technology adoption for farmers. Governments, in turn, can establish incentive programs for sustainable practices, support technology access for smallholders through targeted initiatives, and invest in R&D for small-scale agriculture. Additionally, regulations ensuring responsible data collection are essential. A Sustainable Future for Thai Agriculture By embracing the 4Ss framework and fostering a collaborative ecosystem, Thailand’s agri-food sector can unlock a future of:
  • Enhanced Profitability: Increased farm yields, optimized resource use, and access to premium markets will lead to greater profitability for both farmers and agri-food companies.
  • Environmental Sustainability: Reduced carbon footprint, improved resource efficiency, and climate-resilient practices will contribute to a more sustainable food system.
  • Social Equity and Upliftment: Fairer pricing mechanisms, technology access, and knowledge sharing will empower smallholder farmers, create a more equitable supply chain, and build a stronger foundation for rural communities.
Thailand has a unique opportunity to set a global example by pioneering a 4Ss food system. This innovative approach, empowered by digital technologies and collaborative partnerships, holds the key to unlocking a future of environmental sustainability, economic prosperity, and social equity for Thailand’s vital agricultural sector, solidifying its position as a leader in Southeast Asia and a trusted supplier of delicious and ethically-sourced food for the world.
About the Author Aukrit Unahalekhaka, the Co-Founder and CEO (Thailand) of Ricult, leads a venture-backed social enterprise that’s transforming the agri-food supply chain. Ricult’s AI-powered platform offers an “end-to-end” digital solution for farm operations optimization, crop traceability, and carbon monitoring. This comprehensive approach has empowered over 1 million farmers in Thailand and digitized over 10 million acres of farmland. Aukrit received a joint master’s degree in engineering and management from MIT.

Sasin Collaborative Thought Leadership: Transforming Our Critical Systems Complex multi-actor systems have developed around satisfying critical human needs, such as nutrition, mobility, energy, or housing. These systems, as well as enabling sub-systems such as education, finance, etcetera, represent most of our economic activity, but there is also enormous inefficiency embedded in the complexity and dynamics through which these systems have evolved, making them responsible for most of humanity’s environmental and social impact. Current efforts to reduce our negative impact can hardly be considered successful, because too much focus is still on marginal improvement of our traditional models. Only 18% of the 169 targets set for the 2030 SDGs are on track to be reached (most targets show virtually no progress and 15% are in fact reversing). This is why increasingly, scholars and practitioners are trying to understand the nature of systemic change, the radical reinvention of our critical systems. Cambridge University Press recently published ‘Transforming our Critical SystemsHow Can We Achieve the Systemic Change the World Needs’ by Sasin professor GJ van der Zanden and researcher Rozanne Henzen. Sasin has invited thought leaders and practitioners from around the world to share their visions and insights on the reinvention of the systems that they are part of. These pieces provide a rich variety of perspectives from business, policy makers, civil society, academia and think tanks, as well as enablers such as finance, technology and start-ups. In systems change, incorporating perspectives from multiple stakeholders is essential to come to a shared understanding of the system dynamics and challenges, develop a shared vision of the future and explore possible interventions and collaborations.
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