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.”
Over the next 30 years, Mick Rickerd, corporate executive chef of nutrition services at Spectrum Health, a healthcare system in Grand Rapids, Mich., says it will be necessary to shift from conventional methods of farming to alternative models, growing food in safe, controlled environments, due to the expanding urban environment. This might include an urban container-controlled micro farm, an aquaculture facility, or a hydroponics farm. These environments can provide pathogen-free conditions and grow more with less land. For example, 10 urban container-controlled micro farms the size of a city lot (about 1/5 acre) can produce as much fresh produce as a 20-acre field.
Effects of Population Growth
Over the next 10 to 30 years, population growth will continue to challenge the agriculture industry to grow more using less land, as well as less water and energy, says Nikki Cossio, founder and CEO of Measure to Improve, LLC, a produce sustainability consulting firm in Salinas, Calif. More attention will need to be given to nurturing healthy soils to cultivate plants that are more resistant to diseases and pathogens.
As the population grows, agriculture will compete with development for land. “If farmers can’t make a decent living, they will be more likely to sell out to development, reducing the capacity to grow food,” Cossio says.
Ultimately, population growth is on a collision course with climate change. “While growth increases the demand for food, climate change decreases the ability to meet the demand due to extreme weather events, changing growing regions, and shortening growing seasons, not to mention reduced resources,” Cossio says.
To meet these challenges, a better understanding of today’s resource usage is needed. “We can only improve what we measure; we need to get serious about collecting and understanding data about how we use resources,” Cossio says. “This will help us to be proactive and build resiliency, rather than wait for government mandates. This will also help anticipate and mitigate risks.”
The World Economic Forum states that the solution to ensuring food security and sustainability amid rapid population growth needs to be multi-faceted and focus on reducing global warming, developing skills, and making agriculture more productive and sustainable, among other factors. In addition, plant science, automation, and technologies employing artificial intelligence can also play a critical role in feeding future generations, Kroes says.
Initiatives to Improve Sustainability
While some forces work against food sustainability, steps can be taken to improve it. Innovative technology is increasingly helping ensure food safety and sustainability, most notably in the form of tracking and tracing food across the supply chain using blockchains and Internet of Things (IoT)-connected sensors, Kroes says.
Technology can also help organizations better forecast and manage supply and demand across their food chains. Real-time condition monitoring and precise recall abilities will prevent unsafe food from getting onto grocery store shelves and will make it easier to pull unsafe food off shelves if needed, Kroes says.
Food packaging is another area of focus. “The ability to extend the life of fresh food has allowed for distributing food further away from its source,” says Daniels. “However, packaging can also increase risk by pushing the life of a product and providing an atmosphere that’s conducive to pathogen growth.”
Sarah Chartier, MBA, senior sustainability project manager of supply chain services at Spectrum Health, says the packaging industry can support sustainable food efforts through more intentional design efforts to limit packaging waste. Plastic waste has global implications from production to disposal, including microplastics that pollute the natural environment. “Creating solutions to dispose of packaging as part of the product design process is critical to reducing waste,” she says. “Limiting materials to those that are easy to recycle with conventional recyclers is a helpful short-term solution.”
Along these lines, Paula Pendley, JD, a partner at the Environmental & Tort Practice Group, Lathrop GPM LLP, a law firm in Dallas, Texas, says that food producers should strive to use recycled materials in portions of their packaging when possible, while also maintaining freshness and protecting food from food-borne diseases or chemical contamination during transportation. “By using recycled materials, producers can support food sustainability by minimizing the environmental footprint of packaged food and reducing food waste accumulation, which can reduce costs over time,” Pendley says. “Consumer demand for companies to show how they’re being green can also increase market pressure to use recycled goods.”
Pendley provides a word of caution, though—any packaging that directly touches food must meet federal regulatory requirements, and packages must meet certain specifications to allow for temperature fluctuations and high humidity. “Some companies are working on that, as well as innovating packaging that will extend food shelf life, thereby reducing food waste,” she adds.
Another food packaging initiative that supports sustainability is printing information directly on packaging, rather than applying an additional label to it, Pendley says. This would enable food producers to save on packaging costs, reduce paper waste disposal, and reduce their carbon footprint.
According to Kroes, other food packaging initiatives making headway include switching to reusable or compostable packaging, offering recyclable packaging that can withstand heat and hold liquids, and experimenting with new approaches to packaging. For example, USDA researchers have developed an edible, biodegradable packaging film made of casein, a milk protein, that can be wrapped around food to prevent spoilage. And, Apeel Sciences has developed a natural coating that adds a layer of tasteless, odorless, plant-based protection onto the surface of fruits and vegetables, which helps produce last twice as long.
Reducing Food Waste
An estimated 40% of grown foods in the U.S. are wasted, which occurs throughout every step of the value chain. “Finding creative solutions and secondary markets is key,” says Chartier. This waste consumes more than $218 billion, or 1.3% of the gross domestic product, in growing, processing, transportation, and disposal costs. Internationally, approximately one-third of all global food production is either lost or wasted annually, at an estimated price tag of $940 billion, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
However, the food industry can play a leading role in addressing the problem throughout the food distribution chain, from growing and production, to processing, to retail and food services, according to a recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
Many proposed solutions involve new technologies. Some involve creation of digital apps using blockchain or the Internet of Things (IoT) so food manufacturers and consumers can trace products throughout the distribution chain.
“By using open technologies, like IBM Cloud, blockchain, IoT, and visual recognition, [software] developers are creating solutions to generate better insights about where waste happens, how to track it, and how to share this data across supply chains,” John Walicki, chief technology officer in IBM’s Cognitive Applications Group, told Food Quality & Safety in an interview in 2019.
Farmers can increasingly use innovative technologies to reduce waste and increase sustainability at the beginning of the food chain. This is a significant development, since the Food and Agriculture Organization has reported that farmers lose 20% to 40% of their crops to pests and diseases. For example, some farmers are now using autonomous scouting drone technology to spot pests and diseases sooner and apply pesticides only where and when they’re needed. This technique benefits both the farmer’s bottom line and the environment, Kroes says.
In another effort, greenhouse production is emerging as a proposed solution to deliver fresh food in urban areas without the challenges of distribution or extended shelf lives. “We can now grow crops in areas and times of year that would otherwise be impossible,” Daniels says. “These systems also tout the ability to be safer because of the closed system and lack of exposure to vectors of contamination. However, this is only true as long as there isn’t a breach in the system which could lead to widespread contamination of the entire system.”
A Time to Act
Knowing that demands on the world’s food supply will continue to grow, industry players should focus their efforts on meeting those needs with strategies to increase food sustainability and safety. Notable initiatives are already underway but, according to experts, more needs to be done to stop hunger rates from rising.