The Future of Food
Current global population is estimated at 7.6 billion people. There’s enough food to go around in the world currently (2019) but things are changing. Scientists estimate that the population will reach 11.2 billion people by the year 2100. The UN reports that half of that increase will come from just 9 countries (in order of importance): India, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Tanzania, the United States, Uganda, and Indonesia. Population growth rates are far higher in low and middle income countries and falling in high income countries.
Incomes are rising fast in many low and medium income countries, particularly India and China, who together comprise 37% of the current global population. If you add in Africa, with another 1.3 billion people, this is over half of the global population. Given the patterns of growth, in the future, Africa and Asia will hold far more than half the world’s people. This rise in income creates a rising demand for higher quality foods, including meat, dairy, and fresh fruit and vegetables.
Our current food systems cannot handle the increase in demand overall. There are two main issues at work. The first is that we will need to produce more food in the same closed system in which we now feed 30% fewer people. The second is that agriculture and food production is mostly an extractive system, and is environmentally destructive. If we want to eat, we need to re-think what we mean by food, where we get from, and how we eat. A third major issue is that the impacts from changing climate are already being felt, and mostly by the world’s poorest. One thing we don’t talk about enough is that the increased CO2 from climate change can have a fertilizing effect, producing larger grains, fruits, or vegetables. However, it can also dramatically reduce the nutrient content of the foods we grow, exchanging higher carbohydrate content for fewer micro-nutrients.
Food production has one of the most important environmental footprints there is, but we have to eat something. Some will say, eat less meat! But meat production can be completely sustainable, with grazed animals living on lands that are too poor for grain production. Most of the meat we eat in North America is grain fed and that is less sustainable. But in the other hemisphere, Australians and New Zealanders graze cattle and sheep because they have lots of land that is well suited to that type of production, and those animals are not displacing grain production. But despite the hype around moving away from beef, chicken production vastly outweighs all other types of livestock production, in the US at least.
Field crops are hugely destructive. They require the complete razing of the existing ecosystem, whether it was a grassland, a forest, or a swamp, it must be completely destroyed in order to put in mono-cropping systems. Farmers take off the most nutrient-dense part of the plant, the seed (be it wheat, corn, barley) or the fruit (strawberries, apples) or the whole plant (broccoli, cabbages), the root (carrots, potatoes). year over year, this extraction from the land leaves the soil depleted.
About a third of global food is wasted. In wealthy nations, it happens at the consumer end, as we buy more food than we can eat. In poor nations, it happens at the farm where people lack facilities to store food, and are not well integrated into markets to be able to sell before foods spoil.
We cannot increase food production without more land, more water, or better quality soils. Technologies that allow more efficient production are important are are a major focus of agricultural research (examples from the University of Guelph). Even with all these lines of inquiry, it is my opinion that our food choices will gradually drift away from what we are used to seeing in the wealthy nations of the west and more towards what poor people and Asians are eating now.
So what will we eat?
This all means that in order to feed another 3 billion plus people in the face of climate pressure and the environmental degradation of the main resource required to produce food, things will have to change. Scientists are working hard to develop drought- or flood-tolerant varieties of the crops we know and love, but even if they succeed we are still likely to see some broad shifts in the kinds of things that land on our plate.
What are some of the things we might see as these various pressures start to make it harder to produce the foods with which we are most familiar? I’ve identified four major shifts that are likely to occur in the coming decades.
New sources of carbohydrates
It’s highly likely that the future food systems will not be focused on the same major crops as they are today. Today, wheat, maize (corn), soy, and rice are among the most important global crops. Potatoes are also important but they grow well in poor soils (which is why they were such a big deal in the parts of Ireland that suffered in the potato famine — those are areas with poor soils).
Wheat, maize, soy and rice all require decent soils. It can’t be too hot for a good harvest. Alternatives that grow well even if the conditions are less than ideal include quinoa, which has varieties that are adapted to cold mountainous climates as well as more temperate valley conditions. Quinoa grows in poor soils, in good soils, in hot climates and in cold. It is healthier than other grains because it has more protein and micro-nutrients.
We might also see a rise in other starchy crops that do well in poor conditions like cassava or sorghum, or millets. These are common in the diets of people in Africa and Asia. Soy could hang in there because it’s an important source of protein for a lot of people already, and soybean oil is one of the most important food oils. Soy cake, which is what’s leftover after the oil is pressed out, makes great food for livestock and is currently the a major component of cattle feed in North America.
Foods from the Sea
Eating more foods grown in salt water environments solves two problems, the need for more space to produce food by getting off land, and the need for fresh water. Sure we’re in the middle of dumping massive amounts of plastic in the ocean. However, both salt and fresh water fish can be raised in tanks or man-made ponds. At the moment, the costs of production are not competitive for some species but for others aquaculture is quite common. Tilapia, catfish, and carp are commonly produced this way already. Some kinds of shellfish are from farms are easy to find in local markets, and are often grown off of platforms in coastal areas. In other cases, cages built in coastal areas allow deep water fishes like salmon to be produced in mass quantities.
We also in the west don’t consume much seaweed, but it’s an important vegetable type in Asia and in a lot of northern cultures. There are a handful of important seaweed varieties for food, including kelp, nori and wakame. Ireland is one of the places promoting their seaweed industry, but the vast majority of aquaculture production is in China, while the largest wild harvest is in Chile. A lot of seaweed produced is used as an industrial input into other goods, such as caregeenan, which is used as a thickener. Seaweeds are extremely nutritious and require no fresh water or land-based soils for production. They are amenable to farming techniques and are delicious.
Insects form an important part of the diet of peoples in different parts of the world, from crickets in Mexico, to grubs in Africa. Currently, one of the main ways in which insects are being used is as a powdered form blended with cereal flours to make protein-enhanced baked goods. To produce the equivalent amount of protein, insects require six times less feed than cattle, and four times less feed than sheep. They produce fewer emissions and can be grown on food scraps that would otherwise be wasted.
It is possible today if you suffer from a skin burn for a hospital to grow you new skin from a biological printer. The idea of growing meat in a lab is not that shocking or new anymore. Known as “cultured meat,” it could provide a way for vegetarians and vegans to eat animal products without inflicting any animal suffering. It’s far too expensive at the moment for widespread distribution and consumption but technologies like this tend to get less expensive over time. As the cost of producing meat using grasslands for grazing or grains in in a feed lot go up, the cost of cultured meat becomes more and more competitive.
There is ongoing research into how to keep things the same with respect to our food production system. But the speed of change in terms of climate and population growth mean that adaptation to the new normal will happen over time. The new production systems each come with their own costs and benefits, including environmental costs and benefits, which I have not covered in this post. Each of the four new food sources identified in this post are highly likely to grow in importance in the years to come.
So get ready to eat up!