What is the future for our food system?
By 2050, the global population is expected to grow to nearly 10 billion people and it will demand 70% more food than the amount consumed today*. Would our current agricultural system be able to cope?
Future of food
Drought or heavy rainfalls could disrupt farming and lower crop yields in different parts of the world. If nothing changes, our current agriculture system will continue to cause extreme stress for the environment and the risk of a global food crisis is likely to escalate.
1- Addressing the issues
Our existing food system is faced with various challenges:
- Agriculture is a sector with one of the highest Greenhouse Gas emissions and the main cause for deforestation, soil erosion and contamination, water scarcity and biodiversity loss. It occupies 50% of habitable land, out of which 77% is used for livestock and 23% for crops2. It is not efficient as most of the land used for plant production is mostly for animal feed3.
- About 1/3 of the food produced is lost or wasted1. In developed economies, waste often happens at the consumption level among food retailers and consumers. On the other hand, food loss occurs mostly at the production and transportation levels in developing economies.
- The existing food system does not provide adequate solutions for the world’s population. There are still 800 million undernourished people while 2 billion people are overweight or obese1. Many more are suffering from other diet related diseases (diabetes, hypertension, heart disease) because of malnutrition.
2- How can we meet the challenges of making our food system more sustainable?
It’s becoming urgent to transform the global food system if we are to meet the twin challenges of making and delivering healthy food while maintaining a sustainable and environmental friendly world. The transformation is needed not only for agriculture, but along the entire food chain: from producers to manufacturers to food distributors and consumers. We will also have to change the way we consume food!
Some of the solutions include:
- Growing more with fewer inputs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions: optimising land use, improving crop yields and species diversity to increase agricultural resiliency against pests, disease and extreme weather.
- Reducing food waste that is lost during production, distribution, storage or consumption.
- Improving the livelihoods of the 800 million people working in agriculture around the world, most of them small farmers who live below the poverty line. We need to help them increase productivity and provide better market access for their produce.
- Changing our diets such as consuming more plant-based protein. Animal-based food is more resource intensive and is a big emitter of GHG. The feed-to-meat conversion ratio is inefficient. A cow would require 3 kg of cereal to produce 1 kg of meat4.
Today’s food system is still too focused on quantity and not enough on quality. We need to shift to healthier diets. A diet rich in plant-based foods and with fewer animal source foods provides better health and environmental benefits.
3- What are the opportunities arising from the transformation of our food system?
Companies need to change their business models to take into account the shifts in consumer demand.
This has opened up investment opportunities in sustainable food solutions: companies involved in improving food safety, promoting healthy and natural food, reducing food waste, or making sustainable food packaging.
Leading food producers have created or repositioned their products range towards quality and healthy nutrition, organic products or products with low fat, low sugar, added vitamins or gluten free.
Clean labelling is also important as consumers demand transparency for authentic food and natural ingredients without artificial ingredients (colouring, sweeteners, MSG)
Some new food players focusing on plant based food (alternative proteins such as plant based meat, eggs without chicken or cheese without milk) have also seen growing interest from consumers and investors.
The recent IPO of Beyond Meat with its hefty valuation is a good illustration of the shifting preferences of consumers.
Food distribution and packaging companies also play an important role in the whole food chain. Logistics companies need to optimise food transportation networks to minimise food waste.
Food distributors should be sourcing food produced sustainably, ensure food quality, safety and freshness. Some of them are reformulating the contents to reduce salt, fat, sugar and other preservatives.
Smart shelves can now be found to adjust prices based on the shelf life of products. Better, recyclable and reusable packaging can extend the shelf life of the products, therefore eliminating both plastic and food waste.
Investing in technology companies that can provide solutions to transform the food chain system is also an interesting opportunity. “Climate smart agriculture” is making use of big data to monitor the weather and farm lands, to allow better planting timing, and to improve water efficiency.
With the world’s population expected to reach close to 10 billion by 2050, we would need 3 Earth planets to provide the natural resources in order to sustain our current lifestyles5. This is not sustainable. As of 2019, we are already using 1.7 Earth planets.
Agriculture is an important sector, providing food and employment for millions of people worldwide. Resolving the problems of deforestation, land degradation, water shortage, or overfishing has become critical to revolutionise the complete food chain and making it more sustainable.
To meet the goals of responsible production and consumption, we need to minimise the negative impact on the environment and raising public awareness about the importance of biodiversity.
A circular economy system thinking across the whole food chain, dealing with sustainable farming, sourcing, distribution and waste will be critical.
The consumer plays a key role in shaping the future of the food system: being aware of the existing global food issues, we can adopt a more responsible consumption, shifting to a diet towards more plant-based and less meat-based foods.
*World Economic Forum, Shaping the Future of Food，https://www.weforum.org/system-initiatives/shaping-the-future-of-food-security-and-agriculture
2 Citi Global perspectives and Solutions – Feeding the future Nov 2018
3 IDDRI – In Europe, 70% of the land use for plant production is for animal feed
5United Nations, Sustainable Development Goal 12: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns, https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-consumption-production/