There is no more profound and worthwhile a challenge than attempting to answer the question: how will we feed another one billion people sustainably and healthily by 2025?
And that’s what we’ve been trying to do at WRAP, as over the last ten months we’ve been working closely with the team at 3keel and a Thought Leadership Group drawn from the great and the good in food, health, climate, innovation, technology and a plethora of other food-related topics.
3 trends, 15 topics
We have learnt a lot as we synthesised and visualised thousands of pages of research, innovation and discussions with a wide range of food system experts to produce a new Food Futures report (PDF). We started by exploring 152 topics and trends and ended-up focusing on three major trends and 15 ‘priority’ topics that seem the most likely to change the way we will produce, sell, and consume food in the next ten years, uncovering a complex web of relationships and connections in the process.
This web, when combined with the three major trends we investigated: increasing challenges to food system resilience; an explosion in data-enabled technologies and the alignment of health and sustainability agendas, paints a mixed picture of the future of our food system – but one that is also full of hope if we make the right choices today.
For example, a recent report (PDF) from the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Science & Innovation Network predicts a tripling of the risk of a major production shock by 2040. But to mitigate this we can embrace a raft of new and increasingly affordable data-enabled technologies; and create new landscape-scale partnerships. This will help us to adapt to climate change and optimise our use of resources and land (to feed a UK population of 70 million people by 2030 we would need another 7Mha (million hectares) of land, if we can’t improve yields and reduce food waste). Controlled Traffic Farming and Variable Rate Application technologies alone can reduce agricultural input, energy and machinery costs by as much as 75% by applying water, fertiliser and other valuable agricultural resources only where they are needed.
Figure 1: Food production from a landscape system: realising landscape-scale opportunities to improve the resilience of the food system. Info-graphic from Food Futures: from business as usual to business unusual (WRAP – November 2015, page 18)
Change is coming
Food Futures shows that significant change is on the horizon for all those involved in producing, distributing, selling or serving our food. With a growth in data-enabled technologies there are likely to be fewer jobs in the food industry by 2025. Those roles that remain will require new and more sophisticated skill sets. Upskilling the workforce will be critical: from new on-farm precision agriculture technologies; to new automated food factories capable of customising food products to meet different nutritional needs. And more balanced, strategic and longer-term supply chain relationships, combined with real-time data flows can make our food system more connected, resilient and intelligent.
And this new technology will extend into our homes. Consumers will find themselves entering an era of ultra-transparency, as they experience first-hand a 40x increase in the amount of food-related data available between 2010 and 2020. They will look to intuitive mobile apps and smart kitchens to help them make sense of ‘Big Data’ and better manage the food that they buy. New retail sales channels will emerge and even home delivery could become more immediate and convenient, as disruptive market entrants, like Amazon Fresh, trial and mainstream drone-based delivery.
Not all solutions or opportunities will be technology-based. The potential to create more concrete links between food system sustainability and public health and nutrition are of increasing interest to policymakers, businesses and civil society. If obesity rates and diet-related ill-health rise as predicted, with the resultant costs to society and the health system, a wider coalition of interests will need to come together to ensure a joined-up policy and business response.
Win win solutions
There are some obvious synergies and win-win situations in the debate around healthy and sustainable diets. Many of these deserve further exploration, including more plant-based foods; diversified and more sustainable sources of protein; and a better range of portion sizes reflecting different dietary needs, reducing food waste and overconsumption. The future food system will need to play an active role in helping consumers make healthier and more sustainable food choices.
Figure 2: Aligning the health and nutrition and food sustainability agendas can lead to new innovation in food products and mobile technologies; and help people to live happier, healthier lives. Content taken from Food Futures: from business as usual to business unusual (WRAP – November 2015, page 40)
If the past decade has been one of discovering the nature and scale of the issues we face and beginning to respond to them, then the success of the next 10 years will be judged on the choices we make in finding solutions that transform the food chain and our relationship with food.
We have to ensure that we have a food chain that is ‘FIT’ for the future (flexible, intelligent, transparent) – one that is ready to respond to future challenges and trends; and is able to reconcile the needs of consumers, whilst protecting and enhancing our natural environment. The choices we can all make about our own food futures start today.