containers on a ship at sea

5 megatrends in the food sector |  Impacts of a less predictable planet, health awareness, and more

The world has become unpredictable and left us all grasping for something to latch on to. Do megatrends in the food sector offer some hope?

Megatrends in the food sector are a response to more humans that must be fed, watered, housed and given opportunities for well-being. Needs that are enshrined in the Declaration of Human Rights.

We all have to eat. And now there are so many of us, feeding everyone well requires a vast food sector that has become a fascinating, complex, six-continent food supply chain—a truly interesting phenomenon.

I was surprised that “May you live in interesting times” is an English expression and not, in fact, a Chinese curse. The suggestion is that life is better in “uninteresting times” of peace and tranquillity than in “interesting” ones, usually times of trouble. 

People have yet to come up with the apocryphal Chinese origin of the phrase. Perhaps the British, having given up everything else, can only lead the world in irony and did invent it.  

Of course, today, the shrinking remnants of the British Empire that once included small parts of China are going through the most ‘interesting times’ since the old civil wars as their political system implodes, taking the economy down with it.

And it’s not just the British. There are ‘interesting times’ everywhere thanks to a growing population and the upward march of economic progress. There are significant changes everywhere.

Some scholars have labelled the shifts in social, economic, environmental, technological or geopolitical conditions that may reshape how a sector operates in the long run as a megatrend—a driver of change significant enough to impact whole sectors.

Here we briefly examine five megatrends in the food sector identified by CSIRO Agriculture and Food scientists in Australia that they headline as: 

  • A less predictable planet
  • Health on the mind
  • Choosy customers 
  • One world
  • Smarter food chains

For the visually minded, here is the graphic.

infographic describing the 5 megatrends in the food sector identified by CSIRO scientists

Source: Cole, M. B., Augustin, M. A., Robertson, M. J., & Manners, J. M. (2018). The science of food security. npj Science of Food, 2(1), 1-8.

#1 — A less predictable planet

This is a megatrend.

As I type this post, it is raining again. Eastern Australia is drenched as we limp through an unprecedented third La Niña event in a row in phase with a negative Indian Ocean Dipole that makes the La Niña events more extreme. 

Three years ago, what is now soaking wet was burnt in extreme heat after a long drought. Bushfires consumed over 14 million ha of forest, woodland and grasslands, including two huge blazes to the north and south of where I live—we are not far from the top left of the P in Penrith on the fire map. It was touch and go for a while, and the smoke was horrendous.  

map of the extensive bushfires west of Sydney Australia

Image source:

Australia is famously the land of fire and flood, but these weather-related events of recent years are extreme even for us.

Pandemics are inevitable, if not predictable, and we know now what happens when we get one. Disruption to just about everything with flow-on consequences for what we thought was predictable—the supply of toilet rolls, for example.

Food production is impacted by the weather and human resources but also by inflation and price spikes affecting the cost of inputs. Instability in the economic structure of the food supply chain is more critical than severe and unpredictable climate events and more potent microbes, pests and diseases. But, of course, they are inseparable.

Add to these effects the unknown consequences of severe biodiversity loss, especially soil biodiversity, and the ability to produce food is much less predictable than just a generation ago.

We have to agree that we are living on a less predictable planet.

The megatrends in the food sector of a less predictable planet are uncomfortable because the metrics to describe it are uncertainty, volatility, and extremes.

#2 — Health on the mind

Slowly but perceptibly, people are becoming more aware of the health consequences of what they eat. Not everyone, of course. Many people eat what they can access—they have no choice—but there is a growing social awareness of how important diet is to health, well-being and longevity. 

This might start as questioning why the food advice and health don’t always add up. Then, food choices stretch to environmental consequences, especially between meat and no meat.

Relating diet to health is one of the megatrends in the food sector but not new, except in the West. 

People have always understood that diet matters and expressed it in the food they grow and the cuisines they develop as foundations for their culture. The clue is in the first clause of the last sentence—the food they grow. Half the people in the world still grow most of their food for themselves and their families. They have a deep knowledge of food as health curated and passed down through the generations.

Accepting the caveat of not taking a Western perspective on everything, we agree there is a trend for the slovenly, fossil-fuel-dependent people of the global north to be more aware of what they eat. In recognition, Sustainably FED devotes a whole section of our site to sustainable diet

An uptick in awareness for Westerners might constitute a megatrend, but the truth is that what is eaten is still determined by what the six-continent food supply chain produces and sells. This is one of the megatrends in food sector that started in the 1950s and is still going strong.

Asian farmer carrying maize cobs from harvest bucking some of the megatrends in food sector.

Photo by Matt Briney on Unsplash

#3 — Choosey customers

Here is what the CSIRONresearchers say about the third megatrends in the food sector they identified

Rising wealth, increasing choice and greater market access are driving demand for a more diverse range of foods and food service options that are tailored to individual preferences and lifestyles.

Certainly, there are more people in the world considered wealthy than there used to be. In many countries, economic growth has raised all the boats, at least for those that have a boat. So we agree that greater market access exists for an increasing number and sometimes proportion of people.

And given the opportunity, people will follow their preferences, cultural background and curiosity towards various foods. On average, this translates to increased protein consumption and a higher proportion of processed foods.

But the food options are also about market segmentation—how to make yet another product from the same raw ingredients that could outsell rival products. Preference perhaps, but also market opportunity.

We think that the trend is really about choosey and exploitable customers

We also add the caveat from trend #2 that only some people on earth are wealthy enough to have a wide choice of foods. And we are not just talking about the global south. There are more Americans on food stamps than there are people in Canada.

#4 — One world

The trend for longer, more complex food supply chains has existed for a long time. 

We could mention the spice trade that began in the Middle East over 4,000 years ago and, for a time, was the world’s biggest industry. The exchange of salt was used as currency in ancient Rome, and during the Middle Ages, salt was transported along roads built especially for that purpose. Food and the human propensity to trade have an ancient history.

But we agree one of the megatrends in the food sector is really about ships and, to a lesser extent, aeroplanes.

Shipping was invented in the third century BC by merchants who realised that delivering goods overseas was cheaper and faster than sending them by land. Sacks, barrels, and wooden boxes could be carried on the water but still inefficient in time and labour and ships frequently spent more time docking than sailing. Then in 1956, an American truck driver named Malcolm McLean packed 58 metal crates on a ship sailing from New Jersey to Houston. These containers kept the contents safe and, critically, when the ship docked, allowed the goods to go onto truck beds and freight trains without repackaging—genius.

Soon container sizes were standardised, and ships were built to carry 752, 20-foot containers. Bulk reduced transportation expenses by at least 75%, and before long huge global shipping merchants such as Denmark’s Maersk line, France’s CMA CGM, and China’s Cosco emerged.

Nearly 5,600 container ships were serving sea routes worldwide in 2022, capable of carrying 25 million TEUs—the twenty-foot equivalent from back in the day—that’s 25 million 20ft (6m) containers. 

These ships carry all sorts of goods, and along with the container fleet there are other cargo vessels designed to carry bulk grain, not to mention the global fishing fleet that numbers more than 500,000 vessels in China alone.

Refrigerate a container, and all sorts of foods can be taken to markets almost anywhere on earth and arrive ready for sale.

A global population of 8 billion, with over half not able to grow their food because they live in large cities, creates demand, and with the ships to move the goods, commerce takes the opportunity.

Although we have lived with this globalisation for over 50 years, it is still a trend because the amount and length of food transport around the globe just keeps growing—until it doesn’t.

piles of salt in evapouration ponds

Salt was one of the early commodities traded across large distances. Photo by Timo Volz on Unsplash

#5 — Smarter food chains

Opportunity attracts. This is another of the foundations of human success. We see a dollar and quickly figure out ways to grab it, muscling out the many others who also had their eyes on the stash.

Add to this the idea that efficiency gets more of the dollars into your pocket, and we end up with technology applied to everything, including the food supply chain. 

At least half the food eaten, plus a third of production that goes to waste, is grown, harvested, stored, transported, processed and retailed with big data systems and sophisticated e-commerce platforms. The claim is that technologies are driving the creation of leaner, faster, more agile and low-waste value chains—the adjectives of efficiency and precisely what you would expect when dollars are to be had.

There is also no doubt this is one of the megatrends in the food sector.

What we question is whether it’s smart. 

Sophisticated certainly, and intricate and long, but also fragile. For once, complexity does not confer stability. Our multi-continent supply chains are vulnerable to the slightest disruption, for example, to prices, key inputs such as fertilisers, or the loss of key producers, as has happened since the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Risking failure, even collapse is hardly smart. 

What drives the megatrends in the food sector?

All these megatrends will fit the definition of a shift in the food sector’s operations. They are also likely to interact, trigger and be synergistic—long supply chains have a greater chance of disruption from the unpredictable weather and labour.

Mostly though, they are themselves disruptions rather than trends.

Here is the underlying megatrend, the one to rule them all. The one that makes any of the others seem trivial. 

This trend occurred when humans harnessed fossil energy and turned it into more humans. It is the one we bang on about all the time. 

Everything is a direct or indirect response to more humans that must be fed, watered, housed and given opportunities for well-being. Needs that are enshrined in the Declaration of Human Rights.

The five megatrends in the food sector identified by the CSIRO scientists are a consequence of this one.

What sustainably FED suggests 

In the regular round of living, it is hard to see beyond the immediate.  These megatrends in the food sector are an attempt to see the bigger picture of modern food supplies’ complexity, vulnerability and sheer scale.

Megatrends in the food sector are a response to more humans that must be fed, watered, housed and given opportunities for well-being. Needs that are enshrined in the Declaration of Human Rights.

Going back to the UK and the English “May you live in interesting times” expression. 

The United Kingdom has enough prime agricultural land to feed its people, but it doesn’t. Instead, the UK imports food. 

Even the UK government admits that just over half (54%) of food on plates is produced in the UK, including the majority of grains, meat, dairy, and eggs. Self-sufficiency is about 54% in fresh vegetables and 16% in fruit.

There is an arrogance in this, especially from the former colonial power used to exploiting resources from its colonies, but also a lesson.

What happens if you can’t buy, coerce or otherwise appropriate half the food needed by 67 million people?

Megatrends in the food sector point to the answer… interesting times.

Science Sources

Cole, M. B., Augustin, M. A., Robertson, M. J., & Manners, J. M. (2018). The science of food security. npj Science of Food, 2(1), 1-8.

Hajkowicz, S., & Eady, S. (2015). Rural Industry Futures: Megatrends impacting Australian agriculture over the coming twenty years. Barton, ACT, Australia: Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation.

Hero image from photo by Rinson Chory 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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