The Future of Food - Who Will Be Hungry

Sustainability Issues, Trends, and Opportunities

October 12, 2017, Colin Russo

Dry heat and drought in one season and flooding rains in another is part and parcel of our global food futures to 2050. Also on the radar is a tidal wave of change caused by global warming, population growth, digital futures and deep systemic issues in food futures to 2050 and beyond. These issues are influencing food security, scarcity and trends like biotechnology and precision agriculture in the food industry.

It is argued in this article that bringing sustainability to our fluctuating food futures requires the workshopping of holistic problems and opportunities across multiple emerging issues to align current practices with emerging challenges.

The method used in writing this article is Emerging Issues Analysis (EIA) by Graham Molitor. It is one of the Futures Thinking tools and methods from Professor Sohail Inayatullah’s Six Pillars of Futures Studies (2008).

 

Global emerging issues on the demand and supply of food

Emerging issues may make huge changes to food futures, but people really aren’t aware of their presence. The consequence of the issue may seem a long way off in the future, yet may be building in the background with no statistics pervasive in the popular media.

Statistics about demand for food are always being monitored, by authorities interested in the consumer price index, i.e., when the price of food changes and it has a small impact on inflation, but this is only news for some people. Statistics are also monitored closely by food suppliers (growers, sellers, packaging companies, restaurateurs and food outlets, regulators, health providers and educators) who flex to the desires of consumers.

These issues fit well with research theory stating that socio-economic context is linked to environmental futurity – suppliers of food are impacted by global warming but also by population growth. By 2050 a population of 9 billion will mean farmers have to feed 310 people per farmer - almost twice as many people than they did just a decade ago.

At the same time as global populations are growing, farmers are currently experiencing some of the warmest and unseasonably wet and drier months on record. In Queensland, Australia temperatures are expected to rise by 1 degree by 2030 and by up to 4 degrees by 2070 under a high emissions scenario. Further to this problem, extreme heat events (the number of extremely hot days each year) have been increasing across the Australian continent, from none in 1910 to 28 every year in 2017.

Fluctuating temperatures influence rainfall patterns. In 2016 France experienced its driest July and August on record and Switzerland had its driest December on record, while parts of Eastern Australia had their wettest month on record in September. After the driest eight months on record from September 2015 to April 2016, Tasmania in Australia, had its wettest May to December on record resulting in record winter grain production 49% above that of the winter before. In 2014 Brazil had its worst drought in 85 years, and it is home to more seed plants than any other country in the world.

While global warming is an issue and a trend in itself, we don’t often think about its impact on ocean warming and acidification. Anthropogenic change is putting pressure on the supply of food from land but also from our oceans.

There are global risks to these emerging issues, such as food security, seed protection and development of alternative food sources.

Who is most at risk of going hungry? According to the United Nations, today four countries are fighting famine: Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria and South Sudan. The UN has 17 Sustainability Development Goals. Sustainability is the capability to advance long-term multi-faceted quality of life. There are numerous hunger issues and food security issues. Hunger issues identified by the UN include:

  • Globally, one in nine people in the world today (795 million) are undernourished
  • The vast majority of the world’s hungry people live in developing countries, where 12.9 per cent of the population is undernourished.
  • Asia is the continent with the most hungry people – two thirds of the total. The percentage in southern Asia has fallen in recent years but in western Asia it has increased slightly.

 

Trends that influence food futures

Trends are a line of development that occur over a period of time. A number of foods have become fashionable in 2017, like Thai styled roll-up ice-cream, veggie burgers, seaweed, mixed mocktails. New practices have also emerged, such as healthy dinners ordered via virtual reality restaurants and Google drones delivering foods, e.g., around US campuses.

Consumer choice is now being driven by concerns for personal health, ethical growers, taste and home cooking as popularized by a host of reality cooking television shows. This trend, for example, is influencing the product lines of the world’s most valuable food brand Nestle, who are now adding healthier food to their product lines.

Nestle is losing billions of dollars because of the trend and is now transforming its products to align to health food futures. The reason for this trend can be found in a 2016 survey of 1,700 US dietitians, that shows 49% of registered dietitians attribute the change to “mindfulness” eating where consumers will choose health foods over diets – why? Consumers are now better connected to the recommendations of registered dietitians through technology: fit-bits, point of sale apps and social media devices.

Technology trends such as biotechnology continue to offer resistance to viruses and increases in the shelf life of food which decreases food waste e.g. a new generation of genome editing tools is being developed for plants to help speed up gene discovery and trait development to facilitate both forward and reverse genetics.

A pervasive technological trend is precision agriculture which creates specific strategies for each field of crops by using drones to monitor crop health, quadcopters to measure the growth of crops, apps to model data, lasers to sense plant health to match plants to fertilizers and pesticides, and artificial intelligence to match plants to particular soil types. Computers aboard drones will also use the images with algorithms to recognise differences between plant and animal species.

 

Solutions for a more sustainable future of food

Over time, trends can drive problems that require solutions. A range of global solutions are provided below.

  • Systemic change is recommended because of the interlinkages between consumer demand, product supply lifecycles and the environment – as technology-assisted populations increase from 6 billion to 9 billion, global incomes are increasing, further disturbing ecosystems, increasing energy use and expanding global industry, while water is in decline.
  • Reduce greenhouse gas emissions via development of carbon sinks, transitioning to electric vehicles, and by de-carbonising the energy sector, with a transitioning to solar and other renewables.
  • Use specialist greenhouse techniques to provide stable climates for crops.
  • Understand the role of fair, equitable and sustainable food practices and trade in contributing to the full food brand value chain including links between marketing investment, brand tracking data, stakeholder behaviour and business value.
  • Protect food sources and plants on the endangered list and threatened foods such as chocolate, honey, coffee and peanut paste, and protect wild food sources not currently gene banked e.g. banana, aubergine and sorghum. A most important preservation and adaptation strategy is biodiversity – variety is the spice of life. This is because predicting temperatures for the planting of a particular crop is unwise when a range of crops can self-select for changes in climate.
  • Support food-related targets of the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation to conserve 70% of the genetic diversity of crops and associated indigenous and local knowledge, and to halt the decline of resources and knowledge sustaining livelihoods, food security and health. In sub-Saharan Africa, studies showed that changes are needed by 2050 to prevent areas growing maize, bananas and beans from becoming unviable, through, for example, participatory plant breeding.
  • Identify which regions are more sensitive to climatic drivers than others, and reverse the effects of climate change overall, but especially in arid regions.
  • Eliminate food waste in the post-harvest supply chain, as more than one-third of food waste occurs before it reaches supermarket shelves.
  • Link growers to food technologists and tech experts who can create apps and devices that support ethical choices, so that consumers know the real price of their groceries.

 

Going Forward

Advances in food technology are tremendously important to beating Malthusian scenarios where populations grow faster than food can be produced. In fact, everyone can take action to help transform our food futures – whether it’s from your couch, at home, or outside the house, taking care of your right to elect appropriate leaders, or buying locally and buying smart, or even planting locally and learning about endangered plants to save them from becoming heirlooms of the past.

Even with advanced equipment, life cycles, and systems, consumers and stakeholders cannot be connected to humane, sustainable futures without foresight and strategic direction. Growers and stakeholders struggle to make their industries sustainable using AI in agricultural settings to automate plant and soil solutions because of drone safety, privacy issues and insurance questions that policy makers must grapple with. Systemic cooperation across boundaries is needed to facilitate outcomes where AI in the food industry offers new hope to a changing planet.

The old story is of farmers providing the food basket to feed the global village. The new story is of the global village becoming sustainability farmers.

 

Dr Colin Russo is an Australian futurist, facilitator, award-winning futures author and award-winning engagement expert. Dr Russo has worked for the Queensland Department of Environment and Department of Mines and Energy and for the City of Gold Coast. He worked for Director General’s and CEO’s Offices and continues to work with executive and policy staff and their stakeholders.

From 2015 Dr Russo has worked as Managing Director of Engaging Futures, a consultancy delivering futures workshops for executives and staff interested in learning about and working on their futures thinking and action learning projects. Most recently, Dr Russo has presented in the USA, Taiwan and Australia. From 2015 he has been a futurist facilitator of 1-3 day futures workshops, panels, forums and strategy developments for State and Local governments and for corporations.

Selected project experiences are available on the website www.engagingfutures.com and his CV is available by emailing colinrusso@engagingfutures.com

 


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