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Food – The Global Challenge

The demand, supply and composition of food over the next decade is facing a number of major challenges ranging from demographics, obesity, hunger and food security to the implications of globalization, sustainability, consumer choice and new technologies. Taken in isolation, each of these challenges provides us with some fundamental decisions. Taken together they are a formidable and accelerating global test.

In terms of demographics, we all now recognize that with the world’s population growing to around 7bn by
2020 and 9bn by 2050, meeting our collective nutritional needs is going to be a stretch. Adding on to this is the growing middle class in Asia and Africa, who are demanding more of the less calorically efficient western diet, and, as a consequence, there will be a significant strain on world food resources. Moreover, with an ageing world demanding new healthful foods and a more fragmented market demanding more customization and personalization, food companies are asking how they can deliver the right food to the developed world while delivering enough food to meet the needs and desires in Asia and Africa.

We are in a world of paradox where a growing portion of the developed world is obese at the same time as 15% of the global population is facing hunger and malnutrition as they can’t afford to buy the basics. As a result food suppliers are looking for ways to both design foods to help some people eat less while also delivering food that is affordable, safe and nutritious for those who need more. How can we best balance this equation?

We are also in a world where food safety is a growing not diminishing concern. With increased evidence of food‐borne illnesses and more prevalent, virulent natural as well as malicious man‐made safety issues, we must protect our supplies in order to mitigate the risks. The world regulatory environment is consequently becoming ever more restrictive and the food industry has to both build trust with consumers at the same time as using new affordable technologies to ensure that their food is safe and secure.

Given that ‘government’ uses regulation and taxes to drive change, a question is what the impact on the economics and profitability of the food industry will be? Globalization continues to break down geographic barriers and equalize food economies across the world, so we face several uncertainties around food supply:
The need for renewable sources of energy is driving the food vs. fuel conflict as bio‐fuels compete for food acres and increasing competition raises commodity prices; population change, climate change and security challenges all increase variability and make food supply costs less predictable; and, because of the increasing demand from developing countries, there is significant trade‐offs between calories of grain vs. calories of meat and dairy which means that complete protein commodities are becoming increasingly scarce and alternative sources will be required. How then can we control ingredient and energy costs in order to make nutritious food that people will want to buy? How can we ensure that we will have enough protein to meet global needs? How do we ensure a predictable supply of food? And how will new consumers change the demand cycle?

On top of all of this, there is the sustainability challenge: As ever, more unstable weather adds uncertainty to overall food supply and costs, so will increasing over‐exploitation of land resources and the depletion of aquifers result in a decrease in the acres of arable land available to grow enough food. In addition, over‐fishing of oceans will continue to decrease the supply and increase the cost of fish protein.

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10 Responses to “Food – The Global Challenge”
  1. This week’s Economist is adding to the future of food debate with gusto:

    Its leader ‘How to feed the world’ ( argues the case that business as usual will not do it. It sees a brief window of opportunity in which to set long-term goals without being distracted by panic measure – and that countries need to do two things – invest in the productive capacity of agriculture and improve the operation of food markets.

    In its international section, this article ( looks in greater depth at the problems of food markets and argues that the reversal in the decline of undernourished people is a travesty that needs to be avoided. Food insecurity and the food price spike in 2008 drove countries in a number of different ways. Food exporters banned the export of crops and althoughmany of the restrictions are being lifted behaviours are worrying: Fearing what might happen to rice harvests, the Philippines for example has just concluded contracts to buy 5% of the world’s total annual production – “Panic buying driven by mistrust.” Add to this the large land grabs taking place in Africa and Asia and there are clear signs of a growing distrust in world markets.

    This shorter piece ( then looks at the impact of USAID food supplies in several key African markets

    Lastly, this briefing on Monsanto ( takes a look at how this major corporation is seeking to put is past reputation behind it and used its significant Genetically Modified seed portfolio to address some key challenges. Most significant here is the development of drought-tolerant crops to accommodate increasing water shortages. However other issues that are discussed include the use of land for biofuels, the European reaction to GM (which maybe slowly shifting towards support), the development of more productive strains of crops and the impact that Monsanto’s acquisitions will have on the global food supply. The final paragraph in particular shows how Monsanto sees the future – Moreover, even in America there is the potential to double yields again. Already, farmers in Iowa are producing as many as 200 bushels an acre. Mr Grant believes that 300 bushels are achievable by 2030. “We have just scratched the surface,” he says, pointing out that after the first GM crops came on the market in 1996, it took ten years for 1 billion acres to be planted. But the second billion took only another three years. “We are where transistors were in the 1970s.”

    Now that the World Food Summit is over, it will be interesting to see how other media report the topic.

  2. As the World Food Summit takes place this week in Rome, a number of organisations, from the FT to Oxfam, are all lining up to call for progressive thinking rather than incrementalism.

    In its editor’s leader on Friday ( , the FT raised concern that two key targets had been removed from the draft declaration that weakens its potential impact. “There are more than 1bn chronically undernourished people in the world. The proportion in the developing world has risen to almost one in five.” So the replacement of the target to eradicate hunger by 2025 by one to halve hunger by 2015 (which the FT believes cannot be met) is seen as an ‘implausible promise’ that has ‘little purpose’ and may be ‘counter productive.’ On top of that the pledge to “substantially increase” the proportion of aid for agriculture and food security is seen as far weaker than the previous commitment to raise it to the level of 1980. Agriculture’s share of development aid has fallen 17 percent in the past 30 years and “funds cannot simply be switched from food aid” and we need more investment in “research for agricultural techniques, and better irrigation, storage and transport facilities.” The FT sees that while global food companies have recognised that food shortages “are a structural change rather than a blip,” and their plans for sustainable faming in developing countries are good, “governments too have a critical role, providing agricultural aid and promoting well-functioning global food markets.”

    In a press release from Thursday (, Oxfam added more concerns to the mix pointing out that the new money in the draft declaration amounts to “little more than a one-off payment of around $3 for each hungry person – barely enough for a single hot meal.” Oxfam sees that many rich countries are “intent on trying to increase food production by simply pushing for more chemical fertilizers and new technologies, particularly in Africa. This could offer some poor farmers short-term relief but it is not the answer to the structural problems behind world hunger.” Together Oxfam and ActionAid are advocating that developing countries must play a bigger role – increasing public support for sustainable production by smallholder farmers, funding a reformed UN Committee on World Food Security and agreeing to at least a $40bn a year rescue of the Millennium Development Goal to halve hunger by 2015.

  3. Just back from really good future of health and nutrition event that covered a wide range of topics. Given a primary focus on urban environments, we had several interesting sessions on kids, convenience and the elderly – especially the 80+ group. On this topic, heard some new views on both the challenges and potential solutions to appropriately integrating older people without pushing them into care facilities as is an increasingly default US practice. Apparently in many cities 60% of over 85 women (a growing demographic) live alone. Also it is the wealthy who are often at the greatest risk – when heat-waves hit Chicago and Paris a couple of years ago, it was the affluent elderly who suffered more than the poor: The affluent were typically living alone but, for economic reasons, the poor were in mixed generation housing – often living with their children. As such the poor were the ones who were taken care of better! So, looking forward, it was argued that the need to ensure that urban environments are cross-demographic in nature is a big issue. Having more age-friendly cities is a big topic of discussion for many designers and policy makes and the WHO have also been getting involved in the debate: This 2007 report ( looked at 33 cities in 22 countries and identified the key physical, social and services attributes of age-friendly urban settings.

  4. Reviewing insights being suggested for the Future of Food debate, we came across this clip ( on the White House blog. Looking at the key challenges and opportunities ahead, it highlights how a 1% temperature increase from global warming will decrease food productivity by 10%, that water scarcity is also forecast to decrease global food productivity by 10%; and that to cope with expanded population growth we need a 50% increase in food supply over the next 20 years. The accompanying text on the blog post ( highlights some of the changes the US administration is seeking to encourage to address these challenges.

  5. There is increasing coverage of some of the major challenges faced by feeding all the people on the planet as their diets increase. Not only do we have the rising population dimension highlighted by the last blog yesterday, but more and more attention is focusing on the diet issue. As economies grow and ascend the protein ladder, the switch to meat is putting massive demands on grain supplies. Now in a new report, Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang, respectively former lead environmental and current adviser to the World bank, have raised the connection between meat production and greenhouse gases: Domestic animals cause 32 bn tons of CO2 equivalent – more than the combined impact of industry and energy and over half of the total greenhouse gas emissions. This updates the 18 percent figure found in the 2006 UN report – Livestock’s Long Shadow. A core implication is that “replacing livestock products with better alternatives would be the best strategy for reversing climate change.” This view is supported by the Dr Rajendra Pachauri, Charmian of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as well as Nicholas Stern, author of the UK 2006 review into the economic consequences of global warming. Add on to this the water demands of agriculture – currently consumer 70% of the world’s freshwater, and this is a really big issue.

    So, beyond us all easting less real meat, what is the answer? Jim Kirkwood’s perspective on the Future of Food calls for a second green revolution and an article in this week’s Scientific American ( explores this further. Interviews with VPs of four major crop companies – DuPont, Syngenta, Monsanto and Dow Agrosciences, all point to some of the ways agriculture can be sustainable enough to produce about 50 percent more food by 2050 than it does today. The answers include more drought tolerant plants and reducedpesticide inputs, both from enhancing capabilities with genetic engineering techniques. Syngenta launches its first water-optimized products in 2011. In addition, Monsanto has been working on increasing yields – doubling those of the major crops of soybean, corn and cotton by 2030. On top of this we have opportunities like alternative proteins grown in the lab rather than on the farm. Although bio-tech is ‘not the only tool in the toolbox’ it is one getting lots of attention. How will GMO help reduce CO2 is an interesting combination of two major issues for the next decade?

  6. A few points to note

    While most of the discussions about the future of agriculture and food tend to focus about how to feed 9 billion people, and about whether it should be organic or industrial, one question seems to be left aside, though it is a very important one: who will be the farmers.

    If the forecast of the UN is correct and by 2050 when we are 9 billion, 70% of the people will live in cities, while today this number is only 47%, this means that in fact the rural population will decrease by about 25% from the current numbers (2.7 billion vs. 3.6 billion today). This implies means that there will be a lot less farmers in the future.

    So, who will they be and where will they be?

    A lot of the good agricultural land is in the Northern hemisphere, and in areas where not only the population numbers are stagnating, but these are regions where the average age of the population is increasing from an already rather high level of about 50% of the population older than 37. These regions, North America, Western Europe and Eastern Europe are not likely the countries where we can expect a surge in urban population. This will happen mostly in Africa, Asia and Arab countries.

    These Northern hemisphere countries already have large commercial farming structures and, unless they train many new farmers, the concentration trend is likely to continue, meaning even less farms, and larger farms than today.

    In countries where the agriculture infrastructure is more fragmented and farms are smaller, which are the countries where the urban population is going to increase the most, there clearly is a need to rationalize production and increase yields to feed this new population that will have very little possibilities to grow food where they live. This means a “revolution” in the way agriculture will have to be organized and structured. Asia and South America have already engaged in this process for a few decades, yet depending on the countries they will face different challenges, mostly about access to water and ensuring the sustainability of their environment.

    The continent where agriculture has stayed the most traditional is Africa, where a large share of the land is used for subsistence. Many African countries have struggled for years with poor policies and a lack of investment to help a proper development. This has resulted in lower yields over time. As such, this also means that Africa is the continent with the highest potential for improvement, although this would have to be managed very carefully, as climatic and socio-cultural conditions are very sensitive.

    Therefore, we can conclude that in the future, not only will we have fewer farmers, meaning fewer farms, but also in the same time, we will need to increase production and train a new generation. All of this will require a fair amount of capital that many farmers alone cannot afford, especially considering how their income situation usually is.

    This will be no surprise to see more capital coming from large corporations, investors and governments. This is already happening in Africa with the land purchases and leases, and we can expect his to happen. There is a huge (rather captive) market where demand probably is going to outpace supply, and there is a lot of capital waiting to enter markets where money can be made in trade activities.

    Farmers wanted!

  7. One possible observation is that the cost of food is starting to become more reflective of the direct and indirect costs of energy to put it on a persons plate due to the rising cost of energy.

    As the cost of energy rise, alternatives become economically feasible i.e. photovoltaic panels are dropping in price due to increased volume production. The price of energy for these will achieve grid parity for most domestic consumers in the EU by 2020. However, for industrial users, this will take longer due to the wholecost of energy being cheaper. Incentives such as the Climate Chane Levy in the UK will incentivise food manufactuers to utilise the large flat roofs their manufacturing plants have sooner rather than later, potentenially accelerating the price decrease cost of such panels.

    Other technologies may also follow the same route i.e. oxygenated supercritical water is able to oxidise contaminated food wastes without emmisions (except carbon dioxide)

    Gassification will generate syngas from organic wastes, it was use to generate town gas from coal in the UK until the discovery of gas fields in the North Sea.

    The Fisher Trope reaction can generate hydrocarbons from organic wastes, and is used by China to convert their brown coal into fuel.

    There are numerous other such technologies available, the principle issue is cost of installation and use.

  8. Workshop Feedback says:

    The food system has to become more regionally and ideally globally managed: ‘Free markets’ is an oxymoron. Free markets only exist within pre-determined boundaries such as the EU and NAFTA. Global redistribution of food to be in the right places has to take place at a global level, free of market constraints. However, we must be aware of the disruptive consequences that ‘free’ food in terms of aid makes on some developing nations, and so both the means of supply and the financial workings of the supply system as a whole have to become better managed in tandem. Balancing this requires countries and companies to both release some of their desire to control and profit from supply so that the overall net impact is one where subsidy and aid accelerate the point where sustainable food production in situ can occur.

  9. Workshop Feedback says:

    The real problem is not about too many people and not enough land. It is all about affordable distribution. We need to help societies to be more efficient both by using technology to provide more affordable food and by better bring good quality food closer to the majority of consumers.

  10. Workshop Feedback says:

    The increasing rise of the global diet is not sustainable. We need to challenge the business models of the food companies and see a clear difference between necessity foods and pleasurable foods. We need real markets for sustainable foods and maybe this involves taxation of others?

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