We all know that there are huge challenges in feeding nine billion people, and eradicating hunger and malnutrition, in a world plagued by climate change and water shortages. Fortunately, people aren’t just sitting and waiting for things to happen. Instead, the global food system is undergoing deep, transformational changes on all levels. Here are six of the main developments that we see right now that will pave the way to our future food system in 2050:
1. Awareness of the need to reduce waste
Based on the shocking statistics, such as global food wastage of 1.6 gigatons in 2007, it is clear that one of the solutions to global food shortages is preventing loss and waste throughout the food chain. It all starts with awareness in every part of the food chain. Sophisticated logistics for matching supply and demand, along with improved technologies for storing fresh produce and other perishables, are priority topics for R&D in agriculture and food science. The biggest waste of food, in terms of energy use, is the food that we leave on our plates and discard in our kitchens. Smaller portions, innovative doggy bags, food sharing, and tips and tricks for cooking with leftovers are simple ways to improve our wasteful lifestyles.
2. The emergence of the bio-economy
The throwaway economy will come to an end. We are starting to see the value of resources that were previously considered waste streams. Valuable components in plant-based materials have great potential for use as bioplastics and biofuels, and they may hold components that are useful in pharmaceuticals, food ingredients, and other high-value applications.
3. Climate-smart agriculture
In recent years, climate-smart agriculture has become an established term in sustainable farm management and in integrated solutions to global food security, environmental quality, and economic welfare. Climate-smart interventions focus on optimizing energy efficiency, soil quality, water productivity, and fertilizer inputs. All of these factors contribute to climate-resilient agricultural systems in economies all over the world.
4. Alternative plant-based proteins
The ecological footprint of meat production is much larger than that of protein-rich plants. A large proportion of our food crops is used as animal feed for meat production. This realization, together with recurrent infectious diseases, animal welfare issues, waste disposal issues, and the obesity epidemic and other human health concerns, is leading many people to adopt diets in which meat has a less prominent place. Meatless Mondays, veggie Thursdays, and flexitarianism (part meat, part vegetarian) have become common concepts, all of which are opening up opportunities for plant-based protein-rich foods. Meanwhile, the era of the bland veggie burger has passed. There are now many tasty meat alternatives, even for hardcore meat lovers.
5. The sustainable food movement
Seeking out sustainably produced food has become a means by which people show that they care about the world, the ecosystem, and the farmer. Sustainable food is about healthy eating, ecological responsibility, fair production (preferably local), with little or no waste and pollution. Sustainable food is also about being connected to the food system, and getting to know the people who work to grow and prepare the food we eat. It’s a positive movement that helps us maintain a healthy relationship with food and build awareness about the need for a sustainable future.
6. Urban food production systems
Part of the sustainable food movement is about bringing food closer to the cities. Neighborhood farms and gardening projects have popped up everywhere. Most of them are artisanal and low tech, but they are all about the joy of working the soil and celebrating food production. With the emergence of affordable sensors, LED lighting, and other technologies, high-tech vertical indoor farming is also on the rise. It is not hard to imagine that many of our empty buildings and urban rooftops will be used for food production in the near future.
A glimpse of our future food system
Looking at these trends collectively, we can see the contours of a future food system. With clever solutions to prevent waste and boost productivity in an ecologically sound way, the world population can have greater access to healthy, nutritious foods. Balanced plant-based diets can lessen the demand for animal protein in affluent societies. Sustainable foods are already becoming mainstream.
One thing is clear: everyone has a role to play. Farmers, the food industry, governments, scientists, and consumers are all bringing new perspectives, new technologies, and new practices to the global food system—and thereby taking steps toward feeding the world in 2050. That’s how progress happens, and that’s how the future will be built.
Originally titled “A Glimpse of our Future Food System,” and reprinted from the November/December 2014 issue of Resource, the magazine of the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers, with permission from the publisher.”