The future of food: 6 trends transforming food production for better
In the decades to come, the ways we produce and consume must change dramatically; of that there is no doubt. With the planet facing the interlinked challenges of booming populations, worsening health, global food inequality and climate breakdown, serious action and innovation is needed from every part of the food production industry to meet the demands of the near future.
No industry will have to take on more responsibility than agriculture. It’s incumbent on fresh produce businesses to overhaul the way we grow crops, increase yields and lead from the front in introducing new sources of food. Here, we examine six trends in agriculture and beyond that could change food production for the better.
Over the last 50 years, our diets have changed markedly. Improvements in farming capabilities have meant that humans are now far more efficient in cultivating large quantities of produce, while we have seen the rise of processed, calorie-rich foods. In one sense, this has benefited us greatly; after all, we have never had as much choice. But increased production has led to overconsumption in many areas of the world, which has brought with it a raft of health and environmental problems. It’s clear that change is needed.
A report released earlier this year by the EAT-Lancet commission recommended significant reductions in the amount of meat we consume, with nuts, beans and lentils the preferred sources of protein. However, diets are notoriously difficult to change. People are naturally resistant to overhauling their deep-rooted habits, with most in the West having never experienced rationing or low availability of certain foods.
The reaction in some quarters to the commission’s recommendations suggested a lack of widespread desire to move towards plant-based diets and a belief that such drastic changes are unachievable. Ultimately, agricultural production is driven by demand from consumers; if attitudes don’t change regarding meat then neither will production. However, governments intervening to help meet climate change targets would have the power to influence fresh produce businesses.
More focus on nutrition and health
Another factor which will force a change in the way we produce food is the global health crisis. According to the most recent study from the World Health Organisation (WHO), 1.9 billion people are overweight with 650 million of these people obese. A common perception of obesity is that it’s something which affects only the richest, most developed nations. But the WHO report the situation is also worsening in many low and middle-income countries, as they move towards Western levels of production and consumption. As the problem grows, it will continue to put healthcare systems under strain worldwide.
While recommendations like the EAT-Lancet’s Planetary Health Diet are useful illustrations of the action required to reverse the obesity crisis, public dietary recommendations rarely produce significant health results. The future may instead lie in specific, personalised nutritional advice. The idea is that your genetic makeup would directly inform the diet that is right for you, signalling the end of uniform assumptions about food. The technology already exists, with companies like Nestle trialling DNA kits which consumers can use to receive personal information, recipe advice and supplements.
This kind of service is in its infancy, but once accurate genetic testing is accessible for a majority of people, it could become the norm for determining what constitutes healthy eating. The onus for developing personalised nutrition programmes will initially be on the largest, multinational food corporations and it’s unclear how this would affect agriculture. However, the insights that could be gleaned from widespread use of these services would surely inform the balance of food production in the future.
Additionally, the proportion of people adopting plant-based diets or replacing some of their meat and dairy intake with plant-based food is expected to continue gradually rising. According to The Vegan Society, the UK’s meat-free market is expected to be around £658m in 2021, up from £559m in 2016.
Switching to sustainable production
As per current projections, the global population will be over 9 billion by 2050. This, coupled with the global trend towards higher-consumption, higher-calorie diets we discussed earlier, is likely to propel food demand to around double current levels, according to National Geographic.
Agriculture must react to this reality, but traditional methods for increasing production are fraught with problems and no longer viable. Simply clearing more space for crops and livestock will provide short-term relief but in a world where over-farming and deforestation has crippled the ecosystems of large swathes of the earth, agriculture must seek new solutions.
Increasing yield rates in our current agricultural heartlands could go a long way towards helping meet new demands. Modern techniques and technology in irrigation, fertilisation and tillage, to name a few, have been incredibly successful in doing so but many countries lag behind. Investment on a global scale can bring developing countries’ yields up to the standard of the richest nations.
Uptake of alternative crop-growing methods could also help. Vertical farming is one such avenue. Stacking crops has a number of advantages; more can be grown in smaller spaces, conditions can be further optimised to increase efficiency and resources can be managed more carefully. Hydroponics can also be extended to a variety of new crops, reducing the need for fertile soil.
The role of retail
The supermarket model has undergone various changes over the years since it became the dominant force in food retail, most notably the introduction of online grocery shopping. However, in the coming years we will experience changes in the world of food retail that look set to challenge the hegemony of supermarket chains.
The direct-to-consumer (D2C) model of food shopping is expected to become more popular in the future. Simply put, D2C involves consumer packaged goods producers selling straight to the public rather than retailers. Fresh produce businesses have long felt the squeeze from retailers, and for many profit margins are paper-thin. Subscription models have become de rigueur in many other industries and could hand control back to producers. While D2C subscriptions for fresh produce have existed for a number of years, consumers may now be ready to embrace them as a mainstream option.
We should also ask how food retailers themselves will adapt. In the UK, the ‘Big 4’ supermarkets have lost a considerable share of the market to budget alternatives over recent years. Greater diversification by the traditionally non-budget retailers in terms of products and perhaps even stores is a likely response to this. Shopping habits are also changing; younger generations are less likely to commit to a weekly ‘big shop’ which presents retailers with the challenge of diminishing brand loyalty. Meanwhile, inroads made by the likes of Amazon in the online grocery market should prompt traditional retailers to invest more resources in their own online platforms.
New items on the menu?
It’s now generally accepted that meat consumption as it currently stands is unsustainable. The meat and dairy industries are major contributors to climate change - up to 14.5% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are caused by livestock supply chains, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN.
One potential solution to this issue is the farming of insect meat. While the idea may repulse many, insects contain the same amount of protein and have similar nutritional value to bovine, porcine and ovine meat. The environmental impact of farming insects is also greatly lower than for traditional livestock.
Cultured (lab-grown) meat could prove a similarly useful replacement - the technology now exists to grow artificial animal flesh from just a few cells. Scientists aren’t far from fine-tuning the process to cultivate “meat” that tastes exactly like the real thing; if lab-grown alternatives become a viable option, the mass-rearing of livestock could one day be a thing of the past.
Soil degradation means the amount of arable land on earth is reducing, while the demand for crops is only going up. However, the problem could be partially alleviated by turning to hydroponic growing. Crops like seaweed and algae are already popular foodstuffs in Asia, but their potential remains untapped in most parts of the world. Both are abundant, grow rapidly and don’t require fresh water. Water-based crops can now be farmed at scale with relatively little damage done to the environment when compared to the resources needed to grow most crops on land.
Farmers have worked the fields to provide food for the population for hundreds of years; but with the agriculture industry facing major employment problems and food demand rising, they need help. Creating viable automated solutions is now a major priority for the industry.
Technology already exists that can increase efficiency in certain areas, for instance in crop picking and packing. Fresh produce businesses rely on a seasonal workforce to harvest and package crops, but it’s a labour-intensive and cumbersome job. There are robots capable of replicating this work and other manual tasks (e.g. tillage, irrigation, spraying pesticides and milking cows) while the data available from automated systems can help streamline processes and increase yields. As automated systems develop they will become more affordable and widespread, helping fresh produce businesses battle the challenges of a declining workforce, climate impact and wastage.
The rise of automation won’t be without its problems, though. Integrating technology into an industry as complex as agriculture is challenging and underlines the importance of having robust systems in place. ERP software can act as the single point of truth in an organisation, bringing the many differing areas of a modern fresh produce business under one interface. To reap the full benefits of automation, this kind of synergy is key.