A few years ago, business models surrounding the future of food proposed significant increases in commercial farms, as well as intensified mechanisation. The picture conjured was that of huge tracts of land filled with food crops as far as the eye can see, heavy machinery churning and processing, and trucks delivering substantial loads across the globe. However, recent years have shown that such high-input and resource-intensive farming systems lead to massive deforestation, water scarcities, soil depletion and high levels of greenhouse gas emissions.
According to FAO, such production methods cannot deliver sustainable food and agricultural production. In addition to the already increasing scarcity of productive resources, the future of food is faced with the challenge of feeding a growing population of 10 billion by 2050. Consumer awareness and evidence from science is raising the pressure to ensure that the food consumed is produced in a sustainable way. There is thus a need for innovative systems that protect and enhance the natural resource base, while increasing productivity.
With clear targets set by the United Nation’s Sustainability Development Goals how will our food look in the future? Some of the changes expected include foods of diverse origin, a reduction in food waste, increased use of agricultural technology for sustainable production and a disruption of traditional supply chain logistics. But, while some changes are apparent, others are yet to be identified, and the changes will mainly be driven by consumer trends and technological advancement.
According to a Bioversity International report, 75% of the global food supply comes from just 12 crops and five animal species – yet there are more than 20,000 known edible plant species worldwide. FAO claims that neglected and underutilised species have a central role to play in the fight against hunger and malnutrition, and that they are currently being overlooked. The future of food will thus be influenced by increased awareness of both producers and consumers of the need for diversity of food through more varied production and preparation methods. A new report from Unilever brand, Knorr, and the World Food Programme is building a compelling case for making food choices that embrace diversity and sustainable production.
FAO also estimates that a third of all food produced globally is wasted – that’s 1.3 billion t per year. An increasing consumer demand to reduce food waste has led to the ‘upcycling’ of food, which builds on the application of knowledge from emerging fields of food science and biotechnology, and includes connecting people with restaurants who have surplus food set to be discarded. Other innovations will not necessarily be new but more of a return to traditional food preparation and preservation techniques, such as drying, powdering and fermentation.
It is impossible to speak about the future of food without considering the influence that technology has on food production. Advances in technology have made possible the precision editing of plant genomes to improve crops and the fast breeding of diverse cultures as broadly as possible. Further, agri-tech, which covers technologies such as robots and drones, are being used for the detection of crop diseases, application of pesticides and fertiliser, and more efficient weeding and harvesting. The sector also refers to the use of digital technology to predict weather patterns, as well as the use of blockchain for traceability across the supply chain.
However, with more food produced, the most valuable product will be information. This is information on the market demand and supply availability. With most of this information already available on the internet, I foresee the emergence of disruptive supply chain models that leverage on better logistics and move away from the old model – where food is first delivered to a centralized location , auctioned and redistributed. Instead, access to information will mean that the supply chain and the value chains may be much shorter than in the past.
Thus, the future of food and the food of the future may really be different from what it was expected to be. And with lessons learnt from the past, advances in science and technology, and increased access to data on markets and supply chains, the current generation is in the best position to design and realise a future that is food secure.