With the global population predicted to exceed nine million in 2050 and increasing demand for finite resources, now is the time to examine how the current food system can be transformed. At present, unsustainable food production threatens food security. A third of global greenhouse gas emissions is caused by food production, overfishing is damaging the world’s marine environment, biodiversity is diminishing, and vast areas of absolute water scarcity is affecting billions of people.
Extreme weather events will continue to affect agricultural productivity in the future. Agricultural products move along extensive value chains and pass through many hands such as farmers, transporters, food processors, shopkeepers, and finally consumers. As food travels from field to fork much of it eventually goes to waste since roughly 30% of the food produced worldwide is lost or wasted every year.
“The food system is optimised for high volumes and cheap calories,” said Dr Gulden Yilmaz, director of the healthy and safe food systems programme at Wageningen University and Research at Fi Europe in December 2022. “[It is] time to rethink and reform our food system. Scaling the challenge is important and collective action is needed.”
Connectedness in the system
The State of Food Nutrition and Security in the World report released by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in 2021 describes what successful transformation pathways look like. It references effective and inclusive governance mechanisms as well as access to technology, data, and innovation, which can serve as important accelerators within policies, investments, and legislation to transform food systems.
To create a world with healthier people it requires a healthy planet, according to Yilmaz, who conducts research to tackle the global challenges in food and nutrition along with resources scarcity, security of supply, and the environment.
“The food system that we have now is a development of decades. It is a historic process and we have come a long way in improving its use, productivity, processes and products,” Yilmaz added. “Food in its own complexity is all about interactions, culture, emotions, and [is] central to life and society. We can see we are in urgent need of increased resilience, sustainability, and also quality.”
Futureproofing: transforming the food system along the chain
Global agriculture is tightly interlinked and will face a number of challenges as well as opportunities in the coming years. As developing nations become more affluent and meat consumption increases globally, there will be a need for additional protein-rich foods as well as alternative meat-free options. Yilmaz added that new processes to the food system will need to be environmentally-friendly and sustainable as well as economically viable.
“Protein transition is a [direction] which will impact animal production. We are on the lookout for new alternatives to supply growing populations with proteins. A second direction includes resource use efficiency, circular thinking, and preservation of carbon without soil depletion,” noted Yilmaz.
Referring to advancements in technology, Yilmaz identified fermentation, tailored made crops, and artificial intelligence (AI) as assisting in transforming the food system as we currently know it.
“As technology gets more involved in the food industry, we see that it is delivering benefits in making the operations more efficient, more reliable in supply chain management, product development, formulation and helping us to predict properties in formulations but also discovery of new ingredients […].”
According to the FAO, the demand for agricultural products is becoming greater and by 2050 food production will need to increase by 60% to feed a world population of 9.3 billion.
“It will require conservation of the whole food value chain. From the very beginning, primary production, animals, plants and all the way to [the] end of life including consumers. This includes consumer behaviour and all the stakeholders that are involved,” said Yilmaz.