pears lined up on the counter

Finding future food solutions

We don’t know what they will look like but future food solutions are different to what we have now.

When you expect to live, God willing, for perhaps 80 years, your future food solution is to have egg and chips for dinner tonight. Time beyond immediate hunger pangs is not really in the human consciousness, and we tend not to ask awkward questions like these:

  • What will your grandkids eat? 
  • What will Little Johhny’s future food solutions look like? 
  • Will Johnny be well fed and watered along with the 10 to 12 billion fellow global citizens that the population projections say will live alongside him?

I have no clear answers to these questions, truly.

At Sustainably FED we have been working on sustainable food and sustainable diet for a long time after already being steeped in food ecology

But still, we are not sure what future food solutions will look like. But some solutions are very unlikely.

The current Western diet that mainly contains high amounts of processed foods, red meat, high-fat dairy products, high-sugar foods, and pre-packaged foods that increase the risk of chronic illness is unlikely to persist among future food solutions for at least three reasons:

  1. It makes people sick with chronic diseases and before that reduces metabolic health—4 billion people are already malnourished
  1. It relies on intensive agriculture and a six-continent supply chain that is highly exposed to the fossil spike
  1. It will become prohibitively expensive for the majority, especially the 1 billion people who are already food insecure 

A “back to the future” diet is not possible either.

An Aboriginal diet or paleo diet that takes us back to hunting, gathering and living off the land is impossible for 8 billion humans living on a finite planet. There is a reason for the Western diet that sees half the habitable land used for agriculture and 97% of the mammal biomass as humans and their livestock—we subsidise food energy from the fossil energy pool.

Here is the puzzle..

We can’t go back, and we can’t go forward with the intensive agricultural food systems that rely on fossil fuel inputs and degrade soils

There is hope.

We already know how to achieve regenerative agriculture that protects soil biodiversity, and soil carbon, yet still produces food with fewer inputs.

We also have outstanding technological expertise. There are idyls of alternative energy sources, cars that drive themselves, and rapid transport systems that move people around instantly. We can imagine going to Mars and people living permanently on the moon. 

Somehow we must combine technology and food ecology into future food solutions that will feed everyone well without placing the food system in peril.

Or Little Johhny and his mates starve.

No pressure. 

And no surprise that we tend to look to the economic system that has fed and fed off technology for answers.

American farmer tending to seedlings

Photo by Zoe Schaeffer on Unsplash

Profitable future food solutions

Food can be profitable.

As we often say on sustainably FED, the food required daily to feed the human population is staggering—at least 22 trillion kilocalories a day

And a predominantly commercial system is already in place to meet this demand. One number captures the size of the operation—over 97% of the mammalian biomass on the planet is animals for human consumption

Feeding the current population of pushing eight billion, increasing at a rate of 8,000 an hour into the future with at least half these people living in urban areas with limited capacity to grow their food, is nothing if not an economic opportunity.

Food production needs to increase to feed these people.


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 projected 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 we risk local, regional and even global famine. 

In the immediate 2% seems modest. 

Food energy and nutrition 

Most experts believe that global food production generates enough calories for the human population but insufficient balance in food types to deliver the recommended nutrition.

A team of Canadian researchers compared the amount of food produced globally with what nutritional experts consider a healthy diet. They found that grains, vegetable oils and sugar are overabundant, whilst proteins, 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. Source: Bahadur, K., Dias, G. M., Veeramani, A., Swanton, C. J., Fraser, D., Steinke, D., … & Fraser, E. D. (2018). When too much isn’t enough: Does current food production meet global nutritional needs?. PloS one, 13(10), e0205683.

There is an opportunity for future food solutions to bend the profit approach to meet the calories and the nutrition needs of feeding everyone well.

But the empty calorie options in the current system will fail.

A core problem with profit solutions is that not everyone has food security.

farmer in India tilling his field with a hand-held hoe

Photo by Sooraj Perambra on Unsplash

Food insecurity

Not everyone has access to the economic system. 

Inequality in food is prevalent everywhere because not everyone has available, accessible, usable and stable food supply. It is why Sustainable Development Goal #2 is to End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.

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

Rather than start with profit, we can begin the future food solutions with food security as the critical problem. 

Unlike climate, there’s little finger-pointing or ‘you need to fix it’ rhetoric around food. Perhaps because it’s a diffuse problem, no one person or country’s issue. It is a collective issue, and history tells us that humans struggle with collective issues. 

At least 2 billion people with disproportionate access to food and the economic system that fuels food systems have not considered food security a problem. Not surprising if you can shop in a supermarket. 

Feeding everyone well through the profit system has challenges as does the apparent charitable work of fixing food security through sustainable development.

So what might work for future food solutions?

Features of successful food solutions

At Sustainably FED, we don’t know what will work even though we are not entirely convinced by the market or by charitable efforts. Both are flawed.

We can say there are some critical attributes that all successful future food solutions will have.

They will be

  • founded on circular food production systems that retain nutrients on farms, build soil carbon and maintain soil biodiversity,
  • use technical and land management options to improve nutrient use efficiency and water use to close yield gaps,
  • built around shorter, more efficient supply chains where food is grown closer to the source or closer to where it’s consumed with fewer transactions along the chain, 
  • grounded in a nutritionally balanced and sustainable diet that will mean a change in the current trajectory toward the Western diet, 
  • economic and societal structures that value food and the resilience of food production systems including a rethink of agronomic systems toward ecosystem services,  that we require,  
  • imaginative solutions that pay farmers for efficiency rather than volume, and 
  • compatible with the complex personal and societal psychology
three young Indian children sitting on a wall will need future food solutions

Photo by Surinder Pal Singh on Unsplash

What sustainably FED suggests…

When it comes to future food solutions and global food security, we have to look long. 

Food is fundamental, and future food is not a given. We must imagine Little Johnny and his billions of buddies who probably will not visit the fast food outlets quite so often. What our grandchildren will eat is determined by what we choose to do now. 

We cannot assume that someone else makes these critical choices for us.

An overhaul of the food production systems around nutrient density and protein rather than empty calories is necessary. 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 solutions, we must tap into our imagination and creativity to build technically feasible and socially acceptable options.  

And we can’t be too critical.

We all need to become futurists and listen rather than criticise, even if there is plenty in the current food production system to complain about.

But 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.

We have no clear answers to the questions of future food solutions; truly.

We do know one thing. Solutions will come from human imagination. 

Maybe yours.

Science source

Bahadur, K., Dias, G. M., Veeramani, A., Swanton, C. J., Fraser, D., Steinke, D., … & Fraser, E. D. (2018). When too much isn’t enough: Does current food production meet global nutritional needs?. PloS one, 13(10), e0205683.

Hero image modified from photo by David Fartek on Unsplash


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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