What Does the Future Hold for Our Global Food System?

Man and woman carrying vegetables in basket

Today, about one in nine people in the world regularly doesn’t get enough food, while nearly one-third of the population is overweight. If this were a math problem, those numbers just wouldn’t add up, and yet this is the reality of the global food system today.

How is this possible, and will it ever change?

Those were the questions the World Economic Forum and Deloitte Consulting LLP were trying to answer with The Future of Global Food Systems, a new report examining where we are and where we’re going as far as food security is concerned.

Four Possible Food System Futures

The report examined four major possibilities for our global food system in 2030.

global food systems

The results were based upon a two-by-two matrix, a standard way of approaching scenario work: by placing demand shift on an x axis — comparing resource-intensive and resource-efficient consumption — and market connectivity on a y axis, four possible scenarios emerged.

The worst possible scenario can be found in the southwest quadrant of the matrix, a scenario the researchers dubbed “survival of the richest.” This scenario shows how “a combination of resource-intensive consumption and disconnected markets creates stark differentiation between the haves and the have-nots,” explains the report.

This dire scenario is one that we are unfortunately fast approaching, now that major governmental powers in the west are turning inward rather than outward.

Even before the American election, explains Shay Eliaz, Strategy Principal at Monitor Deloitte, “We already had clear signs that things were evolving. Some of the hypotheses on the table were moving toward lower connectivity, so countries and regions becoming more insular, similar to the Brexit model.”

Another possible scenario is “unchecked consumption,” a resource-intensive scenario with high market connectivity. This is the scenario that that was perhaps most familiar to the West until very recently, a scenario characterized by overconsumption, unhealthy food choices, and ease of access to foods with little regard for sustainability.

Yet another possible scenario is characterized as “local is the new global,” a scenario wherein low market connectivity leads to fragmented food systems, forcing nations to rely on self-sufficiency. While there is a rise in sustainable, local food systems with this scenario, nations without good agricultural land suffer.

The “northeast” scenario, the position that Eliaz notes is usually the “best answer” in this sort of matrix, is one of open-source sustainability, a combination of resource-efficient consumption and highly connected markets. For this scenario to become a reality, governments would have to embrace responsible international trade and make food chains more transparent, and farmers would have to work toward more efficient methods of agriculture.

Of course, none of these scenarios is completely perfect. “In each one of these quadrants, no matter where we land, there’s going to be a combination of winners and losers,” explains Eliaz. It’s perhaps for this reason that we are having such a tough time moving toward a sustainable global food system.

What Can We Do With This Information?

Unfortunately, according to Eliaz, the problem is much bigger than a few small changes can solve, mainly because when we talk about the global food system, we’re really considering two completely different worlds.

In the West, Eliaz notes, people are driven by their easy access to “cheap calories and a very comfortable lifestyle,” whereas in the developing world, people lack the nutrients to sustain a normal life.

“In almost the cruelest twist of irony, many of those people are actually farmers, so it’s almost impossible to talk about solutions without really recognizing that there are two worlds when it comes to eating.”

It’s no surprise that these two worlds have spawned two very different attitudes toward the global food system and how to improve it: people will generally optimize the system to suit their own best interests, meaning that not everyone is on the same page as far as solutions are concerned.

In the West, we are currently looking at the outcome of having chosen a food system created with yield in mind, where reward is in consumption of cheaper, lower-quality foods rather than more expensive, high-quality foods. This problem is exacerbated by the recent shifts toward less market connectivity and a more insular global food system, where we should be moving toward more responsible international trade.

While many champions of a more sustainable food system are campaigning away from this system, it is nevertheless the one being put in place in developing countries, who crave this ideal of Western modernity.

“The developing world is rapidly moving toward much more of a Western diet,” explains Eliaz, attributing this, in large part, to the development of a true middle class in some parts of Asia and Africa that desires the ease of processed food.

In 2014, CNN reported a growing taste for American fast food chains in India, a trend that coincided with a growing middle class; and this is only one example of many.

“I think frankly it’s gonna get worse, we’re gonna shift even further to the left before it gets better,” explains Eliaz. “That is, unless we can convince a lot of Indians and a lot of Chinese and a lot of Africans to not adopt the sort of Western lifestyle that they actually crave.”

Despite the large scale challenges that we are currently facing, there are ways that we as consumers can effect change to the global market, the main element of which is continuing to move toward a qualitative food system.

“The conversation now is not just about yields but it is about quality,” says Eliaz. “The question in my mind is how do you produce, not just more, but how do you produce better?”

This is the issue that it is our job, as crusaders for a better food system, to continue to help solve, by reducing food waste, choosing better, more sustainable foods, and refusing to buy into a food system that focuses on yield over quality.

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Emily Monaco is a food and culture writer based in Paris. Her work has been featured in the Wall... More about Emily Monaco