Today, the way we produce food is undermining the potential to feed ourselves in the future. Many of the critical challenges the world is facing are affected by food production, including climate change, water shortage, deforestation, forced labor and corruption. That is why the world needs to treat food security and affordability as critical issues for global prosperity and well-being.
The good news is that sustainability concerns are increasingly understood and recognized: consumers are calling for change, regulators are beginning to shape new requirements, and food producers and their partners are beginning to look at new sustainable agricultural practices. The bad news is that priorities in the large-scale agricultural economy remain different.
However, change is possible with the help of emerging production technologies, offering more plant-based alternatives, and smarter supply chains. Communication, intelligent use of data and informed engagement with consumers are at least as important. This requires a change of mindset, and only companies with purpose will be ready to handle it.
In this report, we review options to improve food sustainability by influencing diet choices at the consumer level, pricing for the true externalities of non-sustainable food, ways to minimize food loss across the entire value chain by leveraging advanced technologies, as well as the application of the latest farming and food production techniques.
The causes of the over-use of agricultural resources are many, but the leading ones are the long-term shift in the global diet towards eating more meat. The quantity produced has grown threefold in the last fifty years, and per capita consumption has almost doubled since 1961 – from 23kg per person to 43kg per person. Regardless of how and who consumes it, meat is a relatively inefficient form of food production, requiring as much as 100 times the amount of land resources compared to plant agriculture to produce an equivalent volume of calories.
If the world continues to invest heavily in the least productive form of food, we risk doubling down on a model that was never sustainable to begin with. The current shift in developed economies away from meat towards a more diversified, plant-based diet is also a slow change. But it is a change with the potential for far reaching impacts. Simple food substitutions – for instance substituting meats with a high environmental footprint with lower impact alternatives – can alter environmental outcomes very significantly.
For example, if the world were to substitute beef with chicken, meat-related CO2 emissions would fall by roughly half, while water usage would be cut by around 30%. A wholesale shift to vegan diets could more than halve the food-related CO2 emissions per person in a wealthy meat-eating economy such as the US.
According to the UN, around a third of all food produced today – equivalent to 1.3 billion tons – is lost due to delays and inefficiencies in harvesting, distribution, and retail. This is caused by supply chain underinvestment, slow implementation of digital technologies such as data-driven precision agriculture, and supply chain tracking. Eliminating these losses alone would suffice to feed more than two billion people – more than the expected rise in the global population until 2050.
Precision agriculture begins to erode loss rates of a third or more. Transport will be fully tracked with a full record of environmental conditions and retail will be increasingly automated and internet commerce ready. Such technologies have the potential to improve product quality and sustainability by minimizing waste, and to give the consumer access to a full database of sourcing and data.
New technologies, and changing consumer attitudes, can not only positively impact the transport of food, but are already reshaping what is arguably the world’s most important industry: its production. And future food will look different, although some changes will take years or decades to come to fruition.
For example, there will be more support for agro-biodiversity as historic regional crop products are making a comeback. Moving towards more diverse and less intensive forms of food production also comes with profit potential: organic farming is up to 35% more profitable than conventional high-intensity farming, due to the premium price organic products command. Farming will increasingly be supported by technology and big data allowing more focused and precise application of inputs such as water, light, fertilizer, or pesticides. This increases productivity and reduces environmental footprint.
Additional opportunities arise from large scale ‘vertical farming’ in small footprint, high rise facilities. This is particularly advantageous in cities or areas with difficult climatic conditions. Farming closer to the final consumers also shortens supply chains and their environmental impact, although currently an environmental trade-off is made with often high energy consumption of vertical farming systems. An open exchange of know-how and capabilities will therefore be key to optimize crop production on a global scale.
Feeding a population of around ten billion humans by 2050 in a sustainable way is one of the most important challenges humanity is facing. The long-term shift towards high-protein, resource-intensive meat consumption, has shifted the focus of agriculture towards livestock, pasture, and animal feed production, upsetting the balance of the global agricultural economy and increasing the carbon emission profile of farming.
The food sector cannot continue this fundamentally unsustainable path. It needs to optimize across a complex landscape covering production, transportation, and consumption, as well as shifting expectations on environmental and social justice. Each stakeholder needs to think about their part in this change and how to maximize impact. Revising the status quo of food production not only helps reduce risks related to climate change or supply chain disruptions. Adapting now helps food players prepare for a world where food production and supply evolve very rapidly, including new production models and viable new markets.