Will we reach our food future through evolution or catastrophe?

(Photo of Oregon Chai Tea and a vitamin pill by Sam Reckweg)

The food that we eat in 2050 will be dramatically different to what’s on our plates today; and it will reach our tables through an unrecognisable supply chain. We have some big choices to take – or more accurately a lot of small ones – in determining what that food future will look like; and whether we reach it through a deliberately chosen process of change, or by allowing a catastrophe to overtake us.

If that sounds alarmist, consider the level of civic unrest associated with the Eurozone crisis in Greece and Spain; or that in the 2000 strike by the drivers who deliver fuel to petrol stations in the UK some city supermarkets came within hours of running out of food completely. Or simply look to the frightening effects of last year’s grain shortage.

The economic and social systems under pressure today are connected globally, and connected to food supply; and whilst the current crises were precipitated by short term circumstances, their severity is determined by longer term forces that are here to stay.

Three such forces are at work. The first and fundamental force is the expected growth in the world’s population towards 10 billion in 2070. Second is our expectation that we can continue to enjoy the resource-intensive lifestyles of today’s developed economies, and specifically to continue to eat a lot of cheap meat. This expectation will become unsustainable as growth in developing economies rightly corrects inbalances in the distribution of wealth and provides a better quality of life globally. Finally as global economic growth increases the demand for energy, and as fossil fuels become scarcer and harder to extract, the cost of the energy required to grow and transport food will increase (this article in The Economist magazine describes the complex issues around future energy availability).

Ahead of the the Rio+20 Sustainable Development Summit, Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, has described in a stark but very grounded way the threats to life, wellbeing and the economy that these forces are already creating, particularly in some of the poorest regions on the planet. Her speech is a call to action to world leaders to drive a sustainable and fairly distributed economic recovery from today’s situation. The evidence and expert testimony asserting the critical importance of choosing to do that now is growing – see for example these publications from the Royal Society in the UK and the prestigious scientific journal, Nature.

Part of that journey has to be a more sustainable approach to food production, distribution and consumption. Some amazing new technology-enabled businesses are making it easier to buy locally produced, seasonal food, for instance. Sustaination and Big Barn connect local food producers and consumers directly, using social media to disintermediate the traditional supply chain; whilst Growing Birmingham and Landshare encourage the use of more urban land and private gardens to grow food.

However, cities – the environments in which more than 90% of the UK’s population, and more than 50% of the world’s population live – will never feed themselves through these means alone. One hectare of highly fertile, intensively farmed land can feed 10 people. Birmingham, my home city, has an area of 60,000 hectares of relatively infertile land, most of which is not available for farming at all; and a population of around 1 million. Those numbers don’t add up to food self-sufficiency. Unless we accept food sources from “Extreme Urbanism” such as vertical farming or lab-grown artificial meat, cities will always import the majority of their food.

(An example of local food processing: my own homemade chorizo.)

Many of the good reasons to choose local food, though, are really to do with reducing the industrialisation of food production. The simple act of transporting food from one place to another isn’t necessarily bad, within reason; and only constitutes 4% of its environmental footprint, even in today’s supply chain. The other 96% is simply the energy required to grow and process food; and that’s what we need to reduce.

One of our main opportunities to do that is to choose to eat different food. As Wendy Coch at Business Insider says, “It typically takes a long time and lots of grain to raise cattle. That’s why red meat has 18 times the carbon footprint as an equal amount of pasta.”

The other opportunity is to reduce food wastage. We produce more food, and catch more fish, than we need; and we throw too much of it away because it doesn’t meet quota restrictions, or because of inefficiencies in distribution. Those are big political challenges that world governments are wrestling with in the lead-up to the Rio summit. Whilst many are pessimistic that they will find and agree solutions, there was good news on this front from the European Union today with an agreement to ban fishing ships from throwing away their excess catch.

(Photo by Nick Saltmarsh)

But we as consumers are responsible for food waste too. Just one UK supplier of readymade sandwiches throws away 13,000 slices of bread every day because we don’t want to eat sandwiches made with crusts. We plan our meals and food-buying so poorly that much of the food we buy goes rotten before we use it. And few of us are familiar with the recipes and food processing techniques that make use of leftover food, or the tougher cuts of meat such as chuck steak and pork shoulder – homemade jams, soups, stews, sausages and pâtés, for example.

So at one level, the solution to our food challenge is simple. As a delegate at the New Optimists Food Forum (part of the EU Smart Agri Food programme) told me this week, if we choose to eat meat 2-3 times a week rather than 2-3 times a day, we would go a long way towards a sustainable food system. Choosing to be more organised in our domestic lives and learning some new kitchen skills would help too.

Of course the real challenge is persuading billions of human beings to make such new choices about buying, preparing and eating food every day. So whilst the ability of technology to continue to disintermediate new industries such as food is a marvellous adventure for our times; perhaps its real role in this context is much simpler: to spread awareness of the impact of our food consumption; to popularise meat-free dishes as a choice for all of us, not just for vegetarians; and to re-educate us about traditional techniques and recipes for using leftover food.

In summary: to promote and enable informed, responsible decisions about food. I hope I’ve done just a little bit of that today.

About Rick Robinson
I’m the Director of Smart Places for Jacobs, the global engineering company. Previously, I was the UK, Middle East and Africa leader of the Digital Cities and Property business for Arup, Director of Technology for Amey, one of the UK’s largest engineering and infrastructure services companies and part of the international Ferrovial Group, and before that IBM UK’s Executive Architect for Smarter Cities.

14 Responses to Will we reach our food future through evolution or catastrophe?

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