The world’s population is expected to increase by two billion people in the next 30 years, from 7.7 billion currently to 9.7 billion in 2050, according to a United Nations report. The World Economic Forum estimates that demand for food in 2050 will be 56% greater than it was in 2010.
With world hunger slowly on the rise since 2015, concerns are mounting about how to feed a growing population. “We are not on track to reach the United Nations’ goals of eliminating global hunger by 2030,” says Rich Kroes, senior director of global sustainability at Oracle, a global information technology company in Lake Placid, N.Y. In fact, an estimated 821 million people worldwide suffered from hunger in 2018, according to the U.N.
In achieving a sustainable food supply, many factors play a role. For example, climate change and population growth can negatively impact the amount of available food. On the positive side, initiatives in technology, food packaging, and waste reduction can lengthen food’s shelf life and increase its supply. We asked food industry experts to weigh in on the impact of these different factors and offer suggestions for overcoming challenges.
Food sustainability throughout the supply chain requires a commitment from all players to create a system that can deliver food to consumers without excess waste or shortages. “The food industry is complex, and aligning supply with demand is challenging,” says Will Daniels, president of the produce division at IEH Laboratories and Consulting Group, Inc., a laboratory analytics and consulting firm for the food industry in Lake Forest Park, Wash. “There must be outlets for food when supply exceeds demand and a surplus when the opposite occurs.”
Another factor that heavily impacts food sustainability is food safety, because sustainability isn’t possible without the safe production and distribution of food products. “One of the challenges in achieving sustainability is helping ensure that food safety practices and procedures are properly executed across the supply chain,” Kroes says. “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, so any instance of unsafe activity, such as a food product being stored at temperatures outside of its recommended range, can render that product’s entire supply chain unsustainable.”
One of the biggest challenges to the world’s food supply over the next 10 to 30 years will be climate change, Kroes says. Increased occurrences of floods and droughts will continue to threaten a wide range of staple foods, such as wheat and corn, making crop yields increasingly unpredictable. Rising global temperatures will also affect the frequency and persistence of bacteria, viruses, parasites, and foodborne diseases.
While there’s no silver bullet to overcoming the challenges created by climate change, the World Health Organization recommends that governments focus on bolstering their emergency preparedness and response programs in order to better prevent and manage the threat of increased foodborne risks associated with climate change. In addition, “both corporate and government institutions will need to make a collective effort to slow down and reverse the trends in the earth’s climate resulting from human activities,” Kroes says. “Plans will need to be implemented to both adapt and mitigate to changing climatic conditions.”
Due to atypical rainfall patterns that may cause floods or droughts that increase crop spoilage, Deane L. Falcone, PhD, chief scientific officer of Crop One Holdings, a technology-driven indoor vertical farming company in Millis, Mass., says it’s critical to increase reliance on plant-based foods. “Greater use of plants as major sources of dietary protein will help shift the food supply from unsustainable animal protein production,” he says. “This could substantially impact sustainability, particularly in water use, to enhance global food security, while providing healthy sources of dietary protein to greater numbers of people.”