Food revolutions on the way

Sheila Moorcroft, Research Director

Last spotted
April 2011

Food prices are at their highest ever. Two separate foresight reports highlight the pressures on farming and global food supplies. Radical solutions may be on the table soon, literally and metaphorically, if we are to feed the world in future. (March 2011)

What is changing?

Everyone is agreed, that the world faces a significant challenge – how to feed its growing population adequately and fairly now and in the future, without damaging the planet, its eco-systems and climate. Not everyone is gloomy about the potential for achieving the goal.

In February 2011 the UN food price index hit its highest ever score, exceeding the highs of 2008 when the result was riots. In the short term, prices are likely to stay high till harvests are in, but, if yields are good, may fall back; in the long term – i.e. the next 40 years, price increases of over 50% in real terms are predicted.

The UK foresight report – The future of food and farming – calls for a second green revolution, one that does not damage soil, water or climate. It also points out that ‘there is no more land’, and that the combination of increased demand for meat as a result of increasing wealth, all food because of population growth, the increased likelihood of major floods or droughts because of climate change coupled with over use of water and other resources all point to the danger of a perfect storm. That radical action is required.

A French foresight report – Agrimonde – which takes the same timeline – 2050 and the 9 billion estimate for world population – develops two scenarios – one relying on economic growth the other a more sustainable option to feed the world. The report draws on a vast pool of statistics, and highlights the doubling – in some areas trebling – of food productivity plus the potential for increasing agricultural land from the current 1.5 billion hectare to 4 billion – mainly in Africa and Latin America.

Radical food solutions are being discussed, some of which may succeed, others may fail.

Insects are one option under discussion. In many parts of the world they are part of mainstream diets. They represent a good source of protein; can be harvested with lower impact, e.g. carbon and other GHG emissions per kilo produced, on the environment than other animal protein production; and result in less waste. They could also be fed on food waste e.g. from beer production, proving another benefit.

Cultured meat, grown from meat cells in a lab is another option. Research has been underway for some years and again there are a variety of benefits such as less animal waste, reduced risk of meat born food problems such as salmonella or E. coli; lower chemical use and less environmental impact. Crops and foodstuffs with additional nutrients and supplements are also being developed.

Why is this important?

Food security is a major issue nationally and globally; quality of life, rising expectations and aspirations in emerging economies equally important. Obesity and other dietary issues of over consumption are major issues in the west, and also spreading in emerging economies. Malnutrition, not just the crises caused by drought, but chronic long term poor nutrition in terms of nutrients not just calories, affects the overall health of millions in poor nations. Finding better ways to feed us all, but especially children, and improve diet and health will require innovation from companies but potentially also tough regulation and international agreements from governments.

As the riots in 2008 demonstrated, unrest is a real threat if food prices rise and supplies become short. But it is also the threat of conflict over the water needed for food production that is a cause for concern.

Increased meat production is estimated radically to increase GHG production. There have already been calls for eating less meat on environmental grounds, as discussed in a 2009 Trend Alert, Food meets climate change. Consumption is forecast to rise by nearly 30% between 2000 and 2020, to a total of 300 million metric tons.

In the west fears are about over consumption, obesity, poor educational performance and even criminal tendency all resulting from poor nutrition. In developing countries it is about life and death, chronic conditions and early death. Nutritional supplements in foods may be an important part of a new green revolution. The first 1000 days of life are critical. Good nutrition then can set the pattern of development for life. More radical interventions may be needed.

Governments will need to balance national demands with global needs – increased meat production may be economically beneficial now, but longer term may cause greater problems. The west will be seen as hypocritical if restrictions on meat production are ‘encouraged’ in developing countries but not implemented at home. Companies wishing to innovate with new sources of protein may face resistance from the public. Insect eating gets a bad press on TV programmes where celebrities have to eat them as a test, but upmarket restaurants are changing their image and others making them appeal to children. Lessons need to be learnt from trying to introduce alternatives to white fish such as cod, where the ugliness of the deep sea alternatives undermined the potential.

Western fears and resistance to cloning, meat culture and genetic modification may need to be overridden, as well as new approaches to improving and genuinely balancing diet not just for individuals but for all.

A second green revolution will mean governments getting tough and making tough choices as well as consumers and companies having to change their ways. If that revolution fails, we may face more of the alternative – armed revolution and unrest.

(March 2011)


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