The recent United Nations paints a dire picture of the world food security. It estimates that the number of people in hunger could increase by 132 million due to the corona crisis and does not the world on a path to meeting the SDG goal of access to food for all people and eradicating all forms of malnutrition. As the world’s population continues to grow, innovation might be crucial to grow enough food. So, what does the state of innovation in the field of nutrition look like?  

Measuring innovation

In our recent study we assess innovation power by analysing world class patents, We define world class patents as the ten percent most important patents from the active patent portfolio in a specific technology. A patent is important when it has a high competitive impact, which is calculated by considering two indicators:

  1. Market coverage – a larger market weighs more
  2. Patent citations by official examiners – in relation to all citations of the concerning year

While the whole study looks at 58 cutting-edge technologies in ten technology fields, we focus five nutrition technologies in this post: Biocides, Fertilizer, Functional Food, Green Biotech, and Precision Farming.


China is moving up

China leads in two of these nutrition technologies: Biocides and Fertilizer. Especially in the technology Fertilizer, China’s numbers are soaring. It held 61.7% of all Fertilizer world class patents in 2019 – starting from 0.5% in 2000.

Besides China, Japan and South Korea also contribute to East Asia’s strength in nutrition technologies. While some Japanese shares have been slightly decreasing, they generally remain on high levels. South Korea was able to improve their shares in world class patents in all nutrition technologies.

The U.S. goes down

Coming from very high levels, the US has seen the largest decrease in shares of world class patents in nutrition technologies. Moreover, the US is still strong in technically demanding technologies such as Precision Farming where they had 480 from a total of 1,202 world class patents in 2019.

Canada is hard to compare in absolute terms to competitors with many more inhabitants. When comparing Canada to its own performance in other cutting-edge technologies, it is apparent that they have no particular strength in nutrition technologies. But in general, they share the US pattern of decline here.

Europe is doing rather well

Despite East Asia’s success, Europe is doing quite well in nutrition technologies. When comparing the year 2000 with the year 2019 as two points in time, the share of EU-27 world class patents did only slightly decrease. Around the beginning of the 2010s, the EU-27 was even showing higher growth rates than economies in East Asia and North America.

As the largest European country, Germany has its third-largest world class patent share in all of the 58 cutting-edge technologies in Biocides. France also performs well in the field of nutrition technologies: From its seven out of 58 technologies with the largest shares in world class patents, three are nutrition technologies. Worth mentioning is also the strong Suisse performance. Their best technology is Functional Food with a share of 5.5% in world class patents. Taken Switzerland’s size, this is a staggering figure.

chart nutrition

Patents are soaring but not concentrated in food-insecure countries

While balance of innovation in nutrition has shifted states, there is one general upshot: the number of world class patents in nutrition technologies has been increasing steeply. This is a hopeful sign that there is more and more cutting-edge innovation in nutrition technologies which can increase both, the quality and quantity of worldwide food supply.

The problem, of course, is that it is not concentrated in the countries who experience the highest levels of food insecurity. Countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and South Asia depend on knowledge transfers from innovation powerhouses in Europe, North America and East Asia. The challenge ahead is to make sure that the Haves do not turn nutrition innovation into political leverage against the Have-nots. The European Union should therefore support efforts to make access to food a human right and deepen international transparency and collaboration through multilateral organizations, most importantly the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).