The importance of agrifood startups to the food crisis: the research of the Food Sustainability Observatory of the Politecnico di Milano

According to the Food Sustainability Observatory of the School of Management of the Politecnico di Milano, there are 7,337 agrifood startups in the world listed between 2017 and 2021.

In addition to facilitating people’s access to food, 34% of these startups can also be defined as sustainable because they pursue one or more of the goals included in the United Nations 2030 Agenda.

In particular, 30% aim to optimise resource use (goal 12 target 12.2), and 21% promote the protection of terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems (goal 15 target 15.1).

Startups also invest in solutions to raise awareness and encourage the adoption of sustainable lifestyles and practices (goal 12 target 12.8, 17%), to increase the productivity and resilience of crops to climate change (goal 2 target 2.4, 17%) and to promote sustainable tourism and local production (goal 8 target 8.9, 16%). They also aim to protect small producers (goal 2 target 2.3, 12%), to reduce food surpluses and waste along the supply chain (goal 12 target 12.3, 11%), to ensure employment and fair remuneration (goal 8 target 8.5, 8%) and to promote efficient use of and fair access to water resources (goal 6 target 6.4, 7%).

Analysing the geographic location of sustainability-oriented agrifood startups, Norway ranks first (with 25 companies, 60% of which are sustainable), followed by Israel, Nigeria and Poland. With 25% of the 85 agrifood startups being sustainable, Italy ranks 23rd.

On the investment side, US sustainable startups stand out (for a total of $3.2 billion, $8.7 million per startup), followed by those operating in Asia, which raised $2 billion, with an average capital of $10.9 million per startup. The total funding obtained by Italian companies is $16 million, with an average capital per startup of $1.6 million.

From the study of 39 food distribution initiatives for social purposes in various urban contexts, the Observatory identified 4 different recurring cross-sectoral collaboration models, which may also hybridise with each other: 1) recovery and redistribution of food surpluses through donation, 2) suspended spending, 3) transformation of surpluses into another product with longer residual life or into cooked meals, and 4) social supermarket.

The Observatory also identifies 79 solutions to reduce waste from the cold chain. Measuring the sustainability performance of the supply chain has also merited the attention of the Observatory, which – emphasising the importance of packaging – defines performance indicators analysing aspects of circularity and sustainability. Therefore, the Observatory identified 35 eco-tools, software, guidelines and checklists which are designed to measure the sustainability, recyclability and circularity performance of packaging. The study shows, therefore, the fundamental role of agrifood startups in promoting food safety through innovative services, technologies and business models. Their role certainly cannot exclude the responsibility of politicians and decision-makers, but companies’ contributions can yield significant results, which deserve to be encouraged and supported.


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