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The Future of Food: The Quest for Sustainable Food Systems in the 21st Century

Blog post   •   Jan 16, 2017 14:30 GMT

Vertical farming - a trend in architecture and food industries. Vincent Callebaud and his Tao Zhu yin yuan tower in Taipeh looks like 2050 but is from today (2017). (c) https://www.flickr.com/photos/eager/15201911987

Food Systems – the pathways through which food travels from farmers’ fields to consumers’ forks – are about to change fundamentally in response to multiple environmental and socio-economic pressures. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that agricultural output must increase by 60 percent to feed the 9 billion people expected to inhabit the planet in 2050. This increase must be achieved on a shrinking amount of land that is heavily impacted by climate change. Land degradation and urbanization are expected to reduce the amount of arable land by .3 percent p.a., resulting in a loss of 10 percent by 2050. The Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) predicts that yields on this land could decline by up to 25 percent in certain regions due to climate change. However, agriculture does not only find itself on the receiving end of climate change; it is also the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases. The agricultural sector is responsible for approximately 13 percent of global emissions. Any realistic strategy to achieve the Paris Agreement on Climate Change objective to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius must include significant reductions of emissions from agriculture.

These pressures challenge all actors along the agri-food value chain to contribute to a transformation towards food systems that are truly sustainable.


Sustainable Intensification

Sustainable intensification is an emerging paradigm of agricultural production that draws on “nature’s contributions to crop growth, such as soil organic matter, water flow regulation, pollination and bio-control of insect pests and diseases.” Sustainable intensification combines traditional knowledge with modern practices and the considerate use of new technologies, into a toolkit of ecosystem-based practices that can help smallholders and other farmers to achieve higher yields while enhancing natural capital. Research on climate-smart agriculture seeks to further expand this toolset to increase the resilience of agriculture to climate change impacts and reduces emissions, where possible. While sustainable intensification and climate-smart agriculture both embrace some of the principles of organic agriculture, they also clearly recognize the need to increase agricultural productivity and enhance resilience, taking into account the role that new technologies can play in doing so.


Resetting the discussion on biotechnologies?

Biotechnologies and genomics have uses in agriculture that go far beyond genetic modification, such as genomics-based characterization of animal and plant varieties for improved conservation and breeding, plant and animal disease diagnosis, and the development of vaccines. Genetic modification techniques themselves are rapidly evolving, including new approaches such as gene editing, which allow more precise manipulations of an organism’s genome. Researchers believe that the careful application of gene editing could dramatically accelerate the development of new plant varieties suitable for climate change adaptation. The technique could also open up new areas of activity such as plant “vaccines” that can increase the resistance of plants against emerging pests and pathogens and thus reduce the need for pesticides. The polarised debate on GMOs, however, shows that potential risks associated with these new technologies must be carefully evaluated and communicated; concerns of all stakeholders must be heard and respected. As a recent article published in the New York Times shows, the development of “second generation” genetically modified food is further advanced than most people may think.

It is high time to start a conversation on the responsible use of these technologies to ensure that justified concerns do not lead to all-out opposition to new technologies, which may hinder the development of those applications that are really needed.


Reducing food waste

Approximately one third of the food produced worldwide is lost before it reaches consumers.Reducing food waste could go a long way in increasing the amount of food available to feed a growing world population. A common problem in poor countries is that a part of the harvest deteriorates before it can be processed due to poor transport and storage infrastructure. In rich countries, a part of fresh produce is wasted because it does not meet aesthetical standards or other specifications for food processing. Spotted apples, crooked cucumbers and asymmetrical peppers are screened out because consumers are thought to prefer “perfect” produce. Processed products are thrown away when they approach the “best before” date even though in most cases they remain perfectly safe to consume for a much longer time. In some countries policy makers and food chains are starting to act against food waste. A Canadian supermarket chain, for example, introduced a new label for “naturally imperfect” produce at a reduced price. In Germany, civil society organizations (“Lebensmittelretter”) collect food from households to deliver it to the poor. The logistics and packaging industries are looking for ways to extend the shelf life of products and reduce transport times and distances. Given the multiple pressures on agriculture and its contribution to climate change, concerted efforts to reduce food waste should be one of the highest priorities.


Producing Food Without Soil

Urban consumers are increasingly demanding access to locally-produced, fresh food as part of a more environmentally conscious lifestyle. This demand has triggered research and development in hydroponic and aquaponic production systems that do not require soil and have a minimal surface footprint. In hydroponic systems, nutrients are directly delivered to the plants’ roots through a closed irrigation system. Aquaponics are integrated systems of plant and fish production, where fish feces provide nutrients for plants which in turn filter the water in which the fish grow. Internet connectivity and the use of efficient LED lighting have enabled the development of fully automated and scalable systems that can be used in houses and apartments, on rooftops or as green walls on the outside of buildings. More and more architects are experimenting with structures that integrate vertical or hanging gardens that produce greenspace and provide cooling and fresh food. Several companies are developing hydroponic systems that can be housed in shipping containers for on-site production of produce in grocery stores. The same container systems can also be used to grow food in remote areas. While these technologies are still in their beginnings, they could evolve into a new type of high-tech, low-impact food production system located within or near urban centers that would improve access to and quality of food for urban consumers. 


Conclusion

Over the next several years, we will see an intense social debate about the future of food. Ongoing activities on the part of farmers, scientists, food companies, and consumers around the world will be the focus of a global conversation on the challenge to meet a growing world population’s food demand in times of climate change and soil degradation. Corporate actors in particular need to be prepared to participate and interact with the positions of a broad field of interest groups. This in itself could give them an edge in the transition towards sustainable food systems. NIMIRUM is happy to help you with further research. Boost your expertise about #sustainablefood and related issues. Contact us here.

About the author:


Stefan Jungcurt is a free-lance researcher and writer focused on science, policy and practice of global environmental decision making. Stefan currently works as a thematic expert on biodiversity, agriculture and food security for the SDG Knowledge Hub, the Earth Negotiations Bulletin and other projects of the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD). He also works as Research Associate for the Council of Canadian Academies, an independent body for science advice in Canada. Stefan has a Ph.D. in agricultural sciences from Humboldt University, Berlin. Originally from Germany, Stefan is currently based in Ottawa, Canada.

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