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25th Anniversary series: The Future of Food

August 19, 2015

In the UK we’re used to seeing supermarkets full of food, TV programmes showing us how to make ever more exotic meals and magazine articles about the next ‘superfood’ but how often do we stop and ask ourselves whether this supply can continue?

Not only that but we are now starting to see reports that indicate there may only be 100 harvests left and, if that’s the case, how can we secure a continuing supply of food? Not just for us here in the UK but also for the ever-increasing world population.

This growing struggle to ensure food security is fast becoming an overarching mega-trend. As a result of its increasing importance, innovation in agricultural technologies and in aquaculture practices is developing faster than ever. But can these innovations succeed in securing the food supply and minimise effects on food prices and food crises?

Factors affecting food security can be described as falling into three groups:

  • Demographic change – generally threats
    • global population growth
    • increasing demand for water
    • changing global dietary patterns: demand for protein rich diet, increasing demand for cereals, sugars and meat (with some beginnings of countervailing trends towards veganism)
  • Generic climate change factors – also threats
    • a significant decline in available quality and quantity of water
    • soil degradation and erosion – leading to the 100 harvests left scenario
    • decreasing nutritional value of some crops
  • Technological innovation – opportunities
    • biotechnology
    • better crop yields
    • micro-irrigation
    • more precise farming inputs
    • GM crops (however controversial)
    • reducing food waste.

The world’s population is now odds-on to swell ever higher for the rest of the century, posing grave challenges for food supplies, healthcare and social cohesion. A recent analysis demonstrates that there is a 70% chance that the number of people on the planet will rise continuously from 7bn today to 11bn in 2100. This work has overthrown the previous consensus that global population, and the stresses it brings, will peak by 2050 at about 9bn people.

Not only is population growing but also more people are living longer and so demand for resources can only grow. We will need more food, water and better sanitation. However, without successfully managing water stress, including more effective international cooperation, at least 4bn people will likely suffer water shortages.

With these growing requirements for food and water it seems we are at the beginning of an era of global food insecurity and, so far, we can only try to predict what the consequences of this might be.

One emerging strand is the “double burden” of both obesity and malnutrition occurring side-by-side within countries and even within the same families. As the food supply becomes increasingly unstable, the types of food available may be come less diverse or maybe less nutritionally valuable and it may become more common to see obese parents in some developing countries raising underweight and stunted children because ‘junk’, high-calorie food is cheaper and more readily available than the type of food needed for healthy growth

The double burden exists in countries, or even households, where you see an overweight parent with a stunted child as a result of incorrect diets being eaten by both adults and children. This happens because the food system is out of balance, with parents unable to buy sufficiently nutritious food and so feeding their children a diet predominantly rich in calories, such as oil and cereal-based carbohydrates, which, whilst it may prevent the children from being hungry, will stop them from growing properly.

Research into factors such as drought, soil degradation and the decline of pollinating insects is ongoing and new agricultural techniques, which may mitigate some of the issues, are being developed (see our blog on the ‘smart countryside’).

Whilst no one single prediction will tell the whole story, as the issues of climate change and water scarcity will differ in each area and will lead to different results and solutions. What will be important going forward, though, is to encourage a change in thinking from not simply thinking about how to increase the amount of food we produce but to think abut the types of foods produced and the access to high nutritional worth foods for all.

Against this complex background of challenges and potential solutions, we need also consider the possibility that extreme weather may cause food shocks:

And we may not need to wait until 2050 – the worst El Nino year in decades may cause extreme weather in the next 12 months:

There are many excellent guides to major trends that will affect us all over the next decades. For guidance, see . What we have tried to do in this blog sequence is to highlight a specific emerging change from the many, and to explore some of the potential impacts.  We welcome thoughts on other drivers of change or more impacts of the ones we have highlighted.

Written by SAMI Principals, Cathy Dunn and Wendy Schultz..

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