Clockwise from top right: Andrew Bodlovich from Blue Farms. Eagle street rooftop farm in NYC. Wagtail Urban Farm.
Food will change
Food is poised to change, more profoundly than ever before: what people eat in 2114, how it’s made and consumed, would be as strange to us as the foods our own ancestors grew and ate before the age of cold storage, takeaway
and cooking shows.
This food revolution will arise out of resource pressures building up in the global food system, coupled with new technologies and emerging trends in farming, health and sustainability.
In this article I make some predictions about the future of food, based on trends and constraints. Many foreshadow magnificent new opportunities in the Age of Food.
About 170 000 people are born each day. The United Nations estimates that by the late 21st century there may be 10–11 billion humans to feed. To meet population growth and economic demand global food output must double within fifty years.
However, traditional resources are becoming scarce (e.g. soil, water, nutrients, energy), and the climate is becoming more unstable. The collision between demand and scarcity makes food production the challenge of our time. However the risks to food security are not well understood, by governments or consumers. It is what science calls a wicked problem.
Each of us now uses 1386 tonnes of water each year – three-quarters in food production. Groundwater is being mined worldwide to grow food faster than it replenishes, rainfall is becoming less reliable, and rivers and aquifers are drying up. Meanwhile megacities and the burgeoning energy industry devour more water. So, we’re asking farmers to double food production with much less water. We need to recycle.
The world is losing 75 billion tonnes of soil each year, mainly in food production, and the area of farm land is shrinking gradually. Scientists warn we may run out of good arable soil within 40–60 years. We need to reduce economic stress on farmers and farming systems.
Also we are mining our soils of the minerals and micro-nutrients vital for health and life. Scientists suspect that the global rise in chronic disease is linked to this nutrient depletion.
The World Health Organisation estimates that by 2050 cities will be home to 7 billion and cover an area of soil the size of China; many will have tens of millions, and they cannot feed themselves. Such cities rely on a river of trucks coming every night to restock the shops and markets. Any break in the flow – an oil crisis, a war, a big flood or storm – and a megacity could starve. Cities need to grow more of their own food.
Food relies critically on energy – for farming, transport, chilling and cooking. But the number of new cars is growing much faster than the amount of new oil being discovered. Energy shortages will have huge impacts on the price and supply of food. The world needs to develop renewable energy for food production and transport.
Ours is the first generation in the human history to throw away half our food, – this is neither moral nor sustainable. As mined nutrients become scarce farmers may not be able to afford fertiliser. We need to recycle waste nutrients back into food production.
In recent decades scientific effort in food and agriculture has become a low priority. Humans invest around 35 times more on better weapons to kill one another than on better ways to feed one another. If the world invested one tenth of its current military spending in new food science it would help to secure the food supply and increase the prospects of world peace.
Eating the planet
Every meal we eat uses up 10 kilos of soil, 800 litres of water. We are devouring the planet’s resources to feed ourselves. Such a system cannot be sustained. Nor will it feed 10 billion people. It has to change.
The modern industrial diet is neither safe nor healthy, with rising rates of diet-related disease. In developed countries, such as Australia, three quarters of people die ‘by their own hand’ – the one holding the fork. We need healthier diets and more fresh food, to prevent disease instead of causing it.
Fewer than twenty huge corporations now dominate global food trade: their economic might is destroying the livelihoods of millions of small farmers. This is by far the worst farm clearance in history. It is unnecessary, and can be solved by changing how we think about food.
The climate is changing. Two degrees of global warming – now unavoidable – will make harvests highly unreliable in the world’s great grain bowls. Without adaptation, five degrees of warming could halve global food production. This will have a devastating impact on food prices, food security and availability, and will affect everyone: it will drive geopolitics, migration and warfare.
The future of humankind rests on a transition from a diet of predominantly meat and grains to one of seafood and vegetables. Smart rural businesses will invest ahead of the trend.
Challenge and opportunity
The challenge of feeding the world over the comi ng century is vast, but the opportunities – for farmers, scientists, cooks and rural entrepreneurs to reinvent how and where food is produced and prepared – are boundless.
There is worldwide interest in urban agriculture and horticulture, from: large-scale cultivation of fresh foods on urban roofs and walls; to a renaissance in backyard, balcony, private allotment and public food gardens.
The city itself is poised to change: ‘green cities’, alive with vegetation, fresh food, birds and insects, will replace the polluted, soulless concrete-and-glass urbanscapes of today. The new philosophy of ‘agritecture’ envisions towering translucent ‘vertical farms’, wonders to green and adorn the skyline of the future. Such cities will recycle all their water and organic wastes back into sustainable food production. They will be climate-change proof and ensure a highly diverse local food supply that never fails.
By 2050, with the right investment, urban horticulture and farming can supply half the world’s food – humanity will be able to feed itself without plundering the natural world. This will also pave the way for the regeneration of grasslands, forests, rural landscapes and communities, the re-wilding of 25 million square kilometres and the recovery of imperilled wildlife globally. Society will pay farmers to work as stewards of nature as well as producers of sustainable food. Intensive food production offers humanity a way to prevent the sixth extinction.
Modern food growing
In Australia, Blue Farms produces fresh fish and herbs for a major national supermarket chain using conveyor belt aquaponics. Across the world food is produced intensively: using nutrients precisely, little or no chemicals, biological pest control, hospital-style crop hygiene, specialty crops and elite quality control; and recycling wastes, water and energy. Typically these enterprises save 90% or more of the land and water required by traditional farming systems.
The looming world crisis in arable soils and water will be solved in two other ways, by: solar systems in desert countries; and floating farms in areas of dense population close to the sea. In South Australia, Sundrop Farms is using solar energy to extract fresh water from seawater. Such solar farms are ideal for hot, food insecure regions such as the Middle East, Central Asia and desert Africa. Giant floating greenhouses are already being designed around the world to meet the fresh food needs of seaboard megacities like Shanghai, Tokyo or Mumbai.
Aquaculture already produces a third of the world’s fish, but get ready for a culinary explosion in the range and choice of seafood – from jellyfish and sea cucumbers, to a host of unfamiliar sea animals and plants. These will yield a diet kinder to the planet, more resilient to climate impacts, more healthy and delicious for the consumer, more diverse and rewarding for the producer and the chef, and less costly for taxpayers.
By 2050 the world will demand 550 million tonnes of animal, including fish, protein every year. To feed all these animals we will need to crop algae. In future huge algae farms will produce food for people and other animals, fuel for transport, pharmaceuticals, plastics, textiles and fine chemicals. Algae are farmed in tanks or ponds on wasteland, in salt lakes, in shipping containers and on floating rafts in the ocean, where they do not compete for space with other food crops or wilderness. The algae will be nourished on the flood of organic waste emitted by the world’s cities. Algae farming is resilient to climate change.
Thirty countries are already investing in what could become the world’s largest cropping industry. In South Australia, Muradel recently announced the start of production at its Whyalla facility, designed to produce half a million barrels of renewable crude oil a year, from algae. Such crops offer renewable solutions to the problem of energy scarcity – algae-derived oil is theoretically capable of supplying the world’s entire transport fuel needs, and would cut global greenhouse emissions by up to 20 per cent.
Many of the world’s huge range of water plants contain nutrients essential to a healthy diet; they are the original source of omega-3 oils and betacarotene. They can be made into delicious, healthy and sustainable foods as readily as any land-based crop.
We have barely begun to explore our planet in terms of its food potential. Humanity subsists on just a few hundred different plants – yet there are more than 27000 edible plant species – and relies heavily on just five grains and five animals. Many edible plants which don’t feature in the modern diet are eaten by indigenous people, but this knowledge is local, fragile and may soon be lost. Most of these plants are vegetables which can be produced far more quickly, using less soil, water, energy, carbon and fertiliser than other foods. They offer exceptional health benefits.
Intensively produced fruits and vegetables, in boundless diversity, will form the mainstay of the future global diet. They will create new industries and jobs. They will help employ the billion small farmers who are being driven off their land.
Australia alone has over 6000 edible native plants, and most are unfamiliar, not grown and not on menus. Australian native plants are the world’s next culinary boom industry. Their impact on the diet will be as profound as foods from the Americas – like potatoes, tomatoes and chillies – in the last 400 years.
Other important trends
Cultured meat requires far less soil, water, fertiliser, energy, chemicals and carbon to produce than meat from livestock. It is potentially healthier and safer to eat, as well as cheaper to the consumer. By the 2030s cultured meat could occupy the lower end of the meat market – as a filler for pies, sausages and snack foods.
Biocultures and high-tech horticulture will have a major transformative impact on food in the coming twenty years. Cell culture has long been used in agricultural and medical science, and is poised to emerge at industrial scale to grow healthy food. Cells from plants, fungi, microbes and other organisms can be cultured en masse in bioreactors and turned into edible, nutritious and even delicious foods. Novel foods can be tailored to the dietary needs of the individual consumer – protecting them against heart disease, diabetes, cancer or obesity based on their personal genetic risk profile.
With innovation there will be many new foods and unfamiliar foods on the world’s table by mid-century: jellyfish and seaweeds may replace fish and cereal grains; livestock can be redesigned, like the featherless ‘climate chicken’; ‘entomoculture’ (edible insect growing), will be closely integrated with horticulture and aquaculture, and used to recycle organic waste.
A year of food
Finally we cannot have a healthy, sustainable food system unless we have future consumers capable of making the right choices for themselves – and for the earth that feeds us. I suggest one full year – a food year – in every junior school on the planet, to teach humanity a new respect for food. A year in which every subject is taught through the lens of food: how precious it is and how it is produced; where it comes from; how to eat safely, thriftily, enjoyably and healthily; how to help ensure it never fails.
Teaching food is acceptable to all cultures, races, creeds and nations. The means already exist to share ideas universally. It is already starting to happen. We must make it go faster.
The Age of Food
We are entering the Age of Food – never has world cuisine been so spectacularly diverse or so far short of its potential, never have the business opportunities been so diverse or so great. Food is one of the most creative acts which we humans perform. How well we do it will define the human future. It falls to us to make the Age of Food the glory and the foundation of a healthy, safe, peaceful, contented and sustainable world.
*Julian Cribb is an Australian science and agriculture writer, and the author of The coming famine: the global food crisis and what we can do to avoid it (CSIRO Publishing 2010) and Poisoned planet: how constant exposure to man-made chemicals is putting your life at risk (Allen &Unwin 2014).
See the following for more information:
or contact Julian via LinkedIn