By 2050, the world’s population is forecast to surpass 10 billion people. To keep pace with population growth, the United Nations estimates that the global food supply will need to increase by 50 percent over the current volume to accommodate projected demand.

At the same time, agriculture is a significant contributor to global warming, emitting more greenhouse gasses than cars, trucks, trains, and airplanes combined. This comes directly from methane released by cattle and rice farms, nitrous oxide from fertilized fields, and carbon dioxide from the cutting of rain forests to grow crops or raise livestock. Farming is one of the largest users of our dwindling water resources and a major polluter. Runoff from fertilizers and manure disrupts fragile lakes, rivers, and coastal ecosystems around the world. Agriculture also accelerates the loss of biodiversity, clearing grassland and forest for growing, breeding and grazing, contribute to wildlife extinction.

All of this frames the key question: how can the world double the food supply while simultaneously reducing agriculture’s environmental harm? A look at the history of global food supply and where it might be headed offers some potential answers.

Humans are an incredible species capable of remarkable innovation. Despite all our technical advances, while global hunger has been falling overall, as of 2020, the numbers have more recently begun to tick up, with an estimated 750 to 811 million people were living with food insecurity. As the past two years have starkly revealed, supply chain breakdowns can have troubling consequences across the planet.

Similarly pressing are the changes to production and distribution that climate change, primarily, may cause in the years to come. Drought, wildfire, rising sea levels, and flooding will play a role in how food is produced and transported in the decades to come. So will declining topsoil and contamination of our oceans and rivers, lakes and streams. The approach to managing these problems may well determine the future of our species.

Where we’ve been

We take it for granted now, but the average grocery store would have bedazzled people even a century ago, with its breadth of products. Even corner markets often sell produce that’s native to three or four continents (at least). Before foods could be transported or transplanted around the globe, humans ate only what they could grow or had access to around them. Much of early human movement was based on following sources of food and anticipating shortages.

In modern times, we’ve imported and exported species of animals and plants and developed ways to recreate the cultivation conditions required to grow or farm them far beyond their native habitats. In other cases, we’ve gone further and directly edited the genetic makeup of certain plants to make them easier to cultivate. As a result, worldwide hunger has declined overall in the past 100 years, according to key metrics such as undernourishment, childhood hunger, and an aggregate known as the Global Hunger Index.

Indeed, the increased industrialization of agriculture has led to fewer individual people being involved in farm labor alongside more specialization in other sectors. To use the United States as a case study, in 1820 more than 70 percent of the labor force was involved in agricultural work. By 1986 that figure had fallen dramatically to 2.2 percent, with the current statistics at 1.3 percent of the current population, according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). 

Where we are

It is possible to make a case that this mass industrialization of food production is one of the chief indicators of progress in the modern world. After all, if three of every four people were still farming, it is hard to believe that we could have attained all the advances in science and technology that currently exist. 

However, there are clear downsides associated with these industrialization and globalization processes. To begin with, there are the environmental dangers cited above, which threaten our species as a whole. There is also the troubling conundrum that only 55 percent of crops grown across the world are actually eaten by humans (the remainder becomes animal feed and biofuel, among other things). There are also real questions about the ethical treatment of animals and human laborers alike in the commercial meat and agriculture sectors.

Cambodian farmers planting rice. 2004.
Cambodian farmers planting rice. 2004. Photo: Brad Collis

On top of these problems is the overarching issue of the fragility of the delivery system to consumers. Our global food supply chain is incredibly complex. It is impacted by things as simple as weather and disease to more complicated factors, like the business decisions of the people involved in production and distribution (remember those videos of potatoes and milk being tossed out in early 2020?). There are also the international trade policies that differ among countries and the damage that war can have not only on the nations fighting each other, but also globally. This complex interconnectedness means that a break anywhere along the chain can produce massive consequences elsewhere. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has been the cause of a number of these disruptions, and we’ve had a little time to observe and study their effects. The pandemic, combined with political unrest, has also caused blockades in shipping and trucking in various parts of the world. Additional disruptions in the future could include climate change and growing wealth inequality.

Where we need to go

So far, there’s no agreed-upon roadmap for creating a food supply chain that is more equitable, sustainable, and durable. Our goal is to create a world with less hunger, fairer and more ethical practices in the production of food, and higher levels of sustainability (i.e. lower carbon emissions and healthier ecosystems, especially where food is produced).

An obvious starting place in addressing these questions lies in solving the conundrum of getting the 45 percent of food that’s currently grown globally into homes and hands, to the extent needed to end food insecurity. This necessitates rethinking how we feed animals and prioritize commerce over human health and life. Some of this change will have to come from innovations in technology, science and agriculture to create complex foods, components for biofuels and other manufactured byproducts in more ecologically sustainable ways. 

For more information about the current state of food innovation take a look at the panelists and companies presenting at the Food Innovation and Investment Summit 2022 in San Francisco, CA. 

The next area to look at is increasing yield on less productive farmlands. This must be done with more modern farming methods that include soil conservation and restoration, precision and organic farming. All of which involve using our natural resources more wisely, with techniques including the targeted use of fertilizers and pesticides and using cover crops, mulch and compost, as well as delivering water to farmland more efficiently.

Food waste and innovation

Just as food production is a critical component of meeting global demand, minimizing food waste is the other side of the equation. Almost 50 percent of total food produced is lost or wasted before human consumption. The reasons behind this vary by the economic status of countries. In more developed nations, waste occurs in homes, restaurants and supermarkets. In developing nations the chief culprits are unreliable storage and transportation. Some potential solutions include portion control, recycling and efficient use of already prepared foods, developing waste-reducing protocols for home and food service, and investment in modernized infrastructure and transportation.

Cheese factory. An example of how industrial production made the global food supply more abundant.

Another potential solution involves a shift away from meat consumption and finding more efficient ways to produce it. Only a fraction of the calories fed to livestock return to us in the meat and dairy we consume. The difficulty here is that developing nations want richer and more complex animal proteins in their diets. Increasing prosperity will give them the means to meet those demands. Which means that innovation needs to start with countries that already have meat rich diets to pave the way for others.

The U.N. has suggested that a more sustainable future of food production consists of small, decentralized networks of producers serving local bases. A lot of the carbon emissions related to food production come from transport. Radically reducing the amount of travel makes it more sustainable while also decreasing vulnerability in the supply chain. If the food is being produced a few miles from the people eating it, their access is less likely to be affected by breakdowns in the global supply chain. This approach suggests that  more of us would need to be directly involved in food production. It would also require a major change in the economics and geopolitics of food, which would entail a transition in the involvement of large agribusinesses and import and export arrangements worldwide.

Meanwhile, developments in vertical farming (i.e. indoor farming) have also created promising possibilities for the future. Farming in an indoor system where light and water inputs are carefully controlled means food production could be impervious to climate problems like drought and flood. It could also be a great way to foster urban renewal while creating a local source of produce for major cities.

However, vertical farming infrastructure is costlier than traditional farming. Plus, it relies on technology that’s currently manufactured in disparate parts of the world from component materials that are extracted in still more far-flung corners of the globe. The supply chain for this infrastructure is almost as complex as the food supply chain itself, which raises questions about how to scale this technology.

There are also those who propose replacing more of the food consumed worldwide by humans with synthetic products such as imitation meats and other nutrient-dense synthetic or genetically modified foods. Going this route could make food production more sustainable and more ethical in terms of labor practices and animal treatment. It may also fit well within the current global economy. However, there are unanswered questions about the nutritional and health effects of this approach, and again, scale and supply chain breakdowns could impact its long-term viability and resilience. 

We are at a pivotal time in our planet’s history. We have an increasing number of answers to the critical question about increasing food supply in an environmentally responsible way. The challenge lies in the execution of these solutions, which means prioritizing our thinking about our relationship with the food we grow, eat and where it comes from. Our continued existence relies on it.

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