woman fallen off a balcony into the stairwell

Why Agricultural Production Needs to Change Its Look: Optics for future food matter more than they should

Agricultural production will need to change because the optics for future food will look different to today.

You walk into a lobby and see a man kneeling over a young woman’s body. 

She is spreadeagled on the floor and is still as death. 

There is what looks like blood on the floor.

What is your first thought? 

Here are some options:

  • a passing doctor resuscitating the victim of an unfortunate accident 
  • a husband horrified at the collapse of his wife 
  • a brave stranger helping however they could 

Your second thought is something more sinister. The dark hoodie and ripped jeans the man is wearing tip the balance.

A conversation among the bystanders jolts you out of shock.

“What will it look like?” said a sallow man in a check shirt.

“It might be the truth, but it will look terrible. People will think that we did it,” came the reply from his colleague.

“Well, that’s not good,” said the shirt man.

“I’m telling you, the optics are terrible. We have to keep it quiet.”

Troubling as it is, this is the world we inhabit. Conversations like this happen in the workplace, at home, even on the bus. 

Admittedly not often about an unfortunate individual prone on a polished concrete floor, but simply because what something looks like is far more critical than the truth.

We have become obsessed with the visual, the physicality of it, and the impression people will have of what they witness. 

It is warping our minds.

A Botox-infused face is not attractive, whatever way you hold the selfie stick. And yet the look, the optics, are what matters. 

Why is this? 

It may be because we have all become sallow wearers of check shirts, unable to discern anything beyond aesthetics. Our self has become the centre, and what we look like matters a lot in this place of mirrors and pouts.

And it matters right now. 

During old-fashioned facial treatment with mud and cucumber slices, the optics are not good either and yet there are benefits for the future. This is often the case. Sometimes we will need to look dishevelled for future benefit. 

The optics of future food production

If the global food production system is to keep up with the expected demand curve rising at 2% per annum for 30 years—the so-called 2for30—then there will be some changes to the look of many things.

Agricultural landscapes must change to ensure what is grown can be produced sustainably and on the soils and climate best suited to each commodity.

What is purchased in the markets and stores and what ends on the plate will also change. This should be good to look at as the foods will be fresher and less processed to make our diets healthier and the nutrient density easier to produce. But it will involve changes that many will not like. 

What goes on the plate and into the fridge also needs to end up in our stomachs. Food wastage will need to fall dramatically if the 2for30 is to have a chance.

Public policy will need to change too. 

Major policy reform may look terrible as it breaks the status quo and rides the debates over its outcomes and intentions. Yet history tells us that reform is necessary if progress is to happen, even to stop us from carrying laws from the past as great iron balls on chains around our ankles.

For example, there will be a reform of agricultural subsidies that prop up unviable production systems or create mountains and lakes of commodities that are not consumed.  

In this critical public policy arena, we have caught the selfie stick bug. The policy technocrats and the politicians they answer to believe that the optics are more important than the reform. 

What the check shirts see matters greatly to them, but what if the man in the dark hoodie is an off-duty paramedic who saw the woman collapse and saved her life by administering CPR and giving tight and timely information when the ambulance arrived?

This is the glass-half-full interpretation certainly, and not all those who wear hoodies are skilled in resuscitation, but equally, not everyone thinks it looks terrible. 

Indeed, most people have yet to learn about policy, let alone policy reform. 

They just muddle on through life, complaining that the government hasn’t fixed the weather and may not even know what party is in power. They don’t even have any optics on these matters at all.

A different look

The optics for future food will change if the global trajectory is to plough ahead with 8,000 new people an hour, wealth creation and a food demand that grows at 2% per annum for 30 years. There is too much risk in intensive agriculture run on fossils and reliant on degrading soils for the food production systems to stay the same, still look good and deliver.

Then there is an uglier look, like the face that has had one too many lip fillers.

Ecologists with an eye to global limits know that a sustainable human population is between 2 and 4 billion—at best, half of what we have now. 

The current human population is overshot. Food ecology theory tells us that density dependence kicks in through competition and lowers reproduction when a population overshoots available resources. The population declines back to what resources can support. All nice and gentle.

Only this may not be what happens. 

Overshoot without density-dependence where limits are avoided by decoupling from them, as humans have done through fossils, and the population keeps growing—8,000 an hour is the current rate.

And then collapses.

What happens in a population crash? 


man with binoculars looking at the camera to find the optics for future food
Photo by mostafa meraji on Unsplash

What sustainably FED suggests

There are at least two big pictures for agriculture to 2050. 

One where the optics for future food are an extension of what we have seen since the agricultural revolution of the 1950s when technology and fossils combined to create farms with machines and fertiliser inputs that grew crops and reared livestock on an industrial scale.

This picture is more of the same but with a recognition of the critical role of inputs and how that will have to change as the fossils become more scarce due to a combination of depletion and regulation to cope with externalities. It is familiar but different.

Food production will revert to circular systems familiar to subsistence farmers and the pre-industrial farmers of the global north. More people will be growing and helping to grow food, and still some inputs from priority use of the remaining fossils, especially oil.

The second picture is stark, dystopian and even more ugly than too many fillers. It is where intensive agriculture fails before it can change, and millions, possibly billions of people starve. This will not look like a famine in Darfur but more like the consequences of regional or even global warfare—fierce competition kicking in before people starve.

A familiar but different picture is far better than images of a nuclear winter.

Preparing the optics for future food

Agricultural systems and a six-continent food supply chain will have to change to meet current food demand and maintain production when the oil runs out.

We think it is time to anticipate the optics of future food by embracing agricultural policy reform

Start by identifying where reform is needed and openly pointing it out to as many people as willing to listen that a profit-driven food production system is not sustainable. It cannot feed everyone well and is at high risk of collapse from either degrading soils, input disruption, or a combination of both.

Give the reform process a higher profile, show the optics and explain the reform options, however ugly they may appear and get people to feel some discomfort to help them decide.

Never be afraid to be the dude in the dark hoodie and ripped jeans, and be clear that, as  is common in policy reform, there is pain before the benefits are seen.

And finally, stop wearing check shirts for they are ugly too.


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.

Add comment

Subscribe to our explainer series

* indicates required

Most discussed