pears lined up on the counter

Finding solutions to future food

Humans are good at errors. We love telling people that they are wrong even when our pot is as burnt as their kettle. Critiques are not enough to shape our future…

Humans have become very good at telling each other what is wrong. 

Whisper too loudly on the quiet carriage of the 7.31 train to central station and you will be told to shut up or move along by the quiet carriage police aka anyone sitting within earshot. 

In pandemic times, of course, mask-wearing omissions are pounced upon with equal vigour.

If anyone steps out of line we will let them know.

Criticism only gets us so far

It is one thing to say something is wrong, even to discipline the noisy passenger. It’s another thing to give an alternative that I propose is right. 

Criticism might keep people in line with the current set of rules but that is not enough when the rules need to change with the times.

More than a critique is needed to progress. We need to predict the future.

We can imagine going to Mars and have visions of people living permanently on the moon — Lunar Holidays Inc will be a subsidiary of either SpaceX or Virgin Galactic.

There are idyls of alternative energy sources, cars that drive themselves, and rapid transport systems that move people around in an instant. 

So we’re okay when it comes to future technologies, particularly if they involve the potential for profit. But the idea that we would integrate these things into something that looked like our collective sustainable future is not so easy for us. 

Futurists

Certain specialists are available to help predict the future. 

Some companies employ these futurists to recognise that there is a product cycle and a company cycle that requires companies to reinvent their offerings to remain competitive. These futurists are expected to understand what it is that might be profitable that the company could pivot towards or manufacture or develop a service offering. Virgin Galactic again.

But such roles are few and far between. Only the biggest companies can afford the luxury of a futurist on their books. 

You’d have thought that governments would employ futurists. 

Given all the cultural and societal structures that must evolve to cope with growing populations, urbanisation and wealth creation, it would be governments that needed a crystal ball. 

Every now and again there’s a politician who gets on that bandwagon. A few years ago in Australia the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd convened The Australia 2020 Summit, held on 18-19 April 2008 in Canberra, aiming to “help shape a long-term strategy for the nation’s future“.

Here is what made the list for discussion…

  1. Productivity—including education, skills, training, science and innovation
  2. Economy—including infrastructure and the digital economy
  3. Sustainability and climate change
  4. Rural Australia—focusing on industries and communities
  5. Health and ageing
  6. Communities and families
  7. Indigenous Australia
  8. Creative Australia—the arts, film and design
  9. Australian governance, democracy and citizenship
  10. Security and prosperity—including foreign affairs and trade

Dig deep enough and food, ecology and diet are on this list but they don’t make the headlines.

Future food

A critical area that gets a lot less critical thinking than it should is food. 

As we often say on sustainably FED, the amount of food required on a daily basis to feed the human population is staggering. Here is one number that captures the size of the operation… over 97% of the mammalian biomass on the planet is animals for human consumption. This leaves just 3% of the mammal biomass for over 5,500 species. No surprise that many are rare and threatened with extinction.

We conveniently don’t see ourselves as animals and don’t include ourselves in that calculation. 

And how we’re going to feed the current population of pushing eight billion growing at eight thousand an hour into the future. Not just next year or next week, next year or the year after but, let’s say, for a hundred years. 

What will that look like?

2%for30 

We already know that given the current demand growth and diet trajectory, food production must increase by 60% over the next 30 years. And only if we pass through the demographic transition over the next hundred years or so will we need less food production overall. Either way, there is this hump we’ve got to get through where production has to be extraordinarily high and consistent or else we risk significant disruption across the globe. 

Most experts believe that global food production generates enough calories for the current human population but not enough balance in food types to deliver the recommended nutrition.

Bahadur et al (2018) compared the amount of food that is produced globally with what nutritional experts consider to be a healthy diet and found grains, vegetable oils and sugar are overabundant whilst proteins and especially fruits and vegetables are insufficient to meet nutritional recommendations.

Global production versus recommended consumption. Global food production (blue bars) are from FAO (2011) data and nutritional recommendations (orange bars) are based on Harvard University Healthy Eating Plate model. All data are displayed in dietary servings following the CFG and USDA guidelines.

Add to this inequality in food production the inequality in access and it is clear why we need Sustainable Development Goal #2 End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.

Solutions for future food 

We can begin with the recognition of food security as a critical problem. Most people have not considered it as a problem yet, not surprising if you can shop in a supermarket. 

The World Health Organisation, the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the academic community have, in their own way, pointed to the scale and severity of food security risk. Although it does tend to get a little lost among the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Unlike with climate, there’s not much finger-pointing or ‘you need to fix it’ rhetoric around food. Perhaps because it’s a problem that is diffuse, no one person or one country’s issue. It is a collective issue and history tells us that we struggle with collective issues. 

Fortunately, there are many specific solutions that begin with those technical opportunities where we will improve nutrient use efficiency and water use to close yield gaps.

The next set of solutions will revolve around supply chains how we improve their efficiency. Some will be shorter food grown closer to the source or closer to where it’s consumed. Some will become highly technical and rapid, particularly for foodstuffs that are fragile or have a short shelf life. 

The next set of solutions will be in what foodstuffs are eaten, the diet. Many people will need to change their diets. This is contentious at the present because we’re still trying to figure out what makes up a sensible and healthy diet for the majority. 

The fourth set of solutions involve economic and societal structures, the economic solutions. What it is that is valued most for food. Can it still be just about profit or will food be grown to be eaten? Just that alone will shift a few paradigms. 

Perhaps a rethinking of agronomic systems with regard to the ecosystem services that we require. In other words, not removing the capitalist paradigm entirely, but perhaps creating aggregate systems for producing food and fibre that don’t require a profit margin. 

Other imaginative solutions are to pay for efficiency rather than volume. A farmer is paid on the basis of his nutrient use efficiency rather than his yield. 

The next area of obvious solutions is closer to home, our personal psychology

Most of the problems with food production and diet come down to what people decide to put in their mouths. A personal decision influenced by circumstance and context, but ultimately to do with what each person decides to eat. 

What sustainably FED suggests…

When it comes to future food and global food security we have to look long. We all need to put our criticism aside and become futurists. Listen rather than criticise, even if there is plenty in the current food production system to complain about.

It is worth remembering that being critical of the noisy passenger doesn’t necessarily mean he should be quiet — perhaps he was letting everyone know there was a fire in the carriage.

Overhaul and redesign of the food production systems around nutrient density and protein rather than empty calories is a must. But direct substitution, one commodity for another, is not sufficient. Future food systems will be innovative, imaginative and synergistic. They will probably be closer to natural ecosystems than our current intensive production approaches.

To get to future food we must tap into our imagination and creativity to build technical and social solutions. 

The most important solutions are how to integrate all of the specific ideas. To try and imagine how a future food system would work bringing the disparate disciplines together. 

Sustainably FED is all about pointing to the problems but instead of an immediate ‘shush’ we first try to understand them through evidence, and so trigger ideas for solutions. 

Solutions will come from human imagination.

Maybe yours.

Please leave a comment on future food

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Hero image modified from photo by David Fartek on Unsplash

Mark

Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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