In this article
Professor Tim Benton of Leeds University gives his opinion on the future of our food system.
 4 min read

Today's Food System

 The food system includes the production, distribution and consumption of food, as well as the impact of these on our environment and society [Figure 1]. Therefore impacts on climate, ecology, nutrition and health are integral parts of the ‘food system’. The advantage of taking a ‘systems approach’ to food production and consumption is to stimulate joined up thinking about the ‘whole caboodle’ - going beyond the “farm to fork” ethos to integrate the environmental and societal considerations.

Figure 1

To see why the ‘whole caboodle’ matters, let’s examine the food system as it works today. Over the last decades, through opening up markets to global trade and investing in the production of commodity crops, our food system is driven by highly efficient technology-enabled farming. 

However, the global competition for efficiency has resulted in a loss of diversity; with few products produced at large scale in ‘bread basket regions’. What we now have is a situation where global diets are underpinned by products based predominantly on maize, rice, wheat, soya, sugar and oil. The result is increasingly calorie-rich and nutrient poor food consumption.

If we were to design a food system from scratch, it would produce healthy people, maintain a healthy planet and provide profit.

Health

Food is now produced and accessed so efficiently we give little consideration or care to how we manage food waste. Only about half the world’s harvested biomass is used to meet nutritional requirements. Much of it is thrown away, or over-consumed due to its constant availability. The ‘food challenge’ is no longer hunger, but malnourishment, resulting from a global trend towards overweight and obesity.

Environment

Our efficient production system has become the major threat to global biodiversity, degrading soils, with excessive water usage and air pollution.  Continued mass centralized production of cheap, calorie-rich food is creating an environmental crisis locking us into a climate change trajectory that the world’s governments have agreed we must work to avoid. The food system emits more greenhouse gases than any other sector. Food alone, on current trends, will break the Paris climate agreement’s limit of 1.5°C. It is safe to say that our food system is unsustainable.

The World is Changing

Until recently, much of our thinking and the discourse about the future of food was driven by “business as usual”. Industry has been focused on interpreting trends and foresights on how innovations may affect the market that is essentially about selling ever more, ever more cheaply. However, we are all noticing that the world is changing. On the one hand, climate change is an increasing threat to supply chain resilience, as well as affecting many people’s lives through increasingly extreme weather patterns. The recognition that our food system is creating significant health and environmental costs is now fueling tensions for politics and consumers. 

Consumers wish to be healthy and consume in a sustainable way, however this needs to be enabled and supported from a national to regional level. In addition to addressing the need and demand for access to affordable, locally sourced, healthy foods, governments and politicians are dealing with the increasing demands on the health systems from food-related issues such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Collectively these issues are questioning competencies and undermining authority and mandates. In parallel the destabilization of the Middle East, the European migration crisis and the rise of nationalism, evidenced in Brexit and the election of Trump, all have the power to reconfigure our food system by disrupting existing trade relationships.

Food Futures - Can we Change?

Recently, I participated in a group – organised by the World Economic Forum [1] –  to think about the future of food systems. We imagined 4 plausible scenarios [Figure 2], defined by whether consumers switched (or were made to switch by changing prices and availability) to eating nutritious and sustainable diets, and by whether the world carried on getting more globalized, or whether geo-political and climate instability caused us to shorten supply chains to build resilience [2].

Posibilities

The top left scenario is ‘business as usual’.  On the right hand side, we have plausible scenarios of where the world is getting more interconnected or more localized.  In the more inter-connected world, we can imagine a world of long supply chains, diets based on a few crops, perhaps fortified with nutrients. Global interconnectivity includes technology, so the world is similar and technically advanced, people eating processed foods, perhaps supported by personalized data-driven apps to meet the attributes they want from food.

Figure 2

However, imagine a less connected, more localized world. We’d grow more locally, and therefore need a diversity of production. It would require a much stronger SME ecosystem, more connection between people and food, and because food would cost more, there would be less waste in the system as a whole.

What do we Want?

The current potential for reconfiguration of the food system is both an opportunity and a threat. Do we want to push efficient production but an inefficient food system?  Or do we want to help push to improve the system?  If we were to design a food system from scratch, it would produce healthy people, maintain a healthy planet and provide profit.  This might require a diversity of approaches and products: supporting business big and small. 

References

[1] Shaping the Future of Global Food Systems: A Scenarios Analysis

[2] This argument is expanded in the independent British Food Report commissioned by Morrison’s

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