How Our Current Relationship with Food Will Cripple Our Ability to Feed 9 Billion People
As the global population continues its rapid growth, it’s difficult to comprehend what it will mean to have 9 billion people sharing the planet. Think of it this way: If you were living in 1967, with the technological understanding of the time, you’d think the Earth would require an additional landmass the size of Russia to feed the population we have in 2013.
Obviously, no such landmass magically sprung into existence, so how did we make it here?
A New Perspective
Looking forward to approximately 2050, we’ll find ourselves in an almost identical situation. The world population is set to increase by another 2 billion people or so, and the obstacles standing in the way of feeding everyone are daunting. This will require a level of food-growing advancement we’ve never seen before, and it’s up to food growers, governments, and consumers to work together to make these advancements come to fruition.
This new perspective begins by recognizing that we are not actually feeding everyone on the planet; at the same time, we are incredibly wasteful. In the United States alone, grocery stores, restaurants, and consumers waste roughly half of their food.
While it’s clear we must begin cutting down on waste, there are a number of other problems standing in the way of solving world hunger. One of the largest involves aligning mass agriculture with consumer culture.
Consumers hold widely varying opinions on the rights and wrongs regarding food and agriculture. Once consumers begin to make decisions about what’s good and bad, people outside the consumer sphere of influence can find themselves losing out.
Let’s take big agriculture as an example. Only 2 percent of the U.S. population runs farms or ranches, yet the remaining 98 percent profess highly vocal opinions about how food should come from soil to plate. It’s common for people to fall in love with the local organic farmers’ market, and equally so to consider the big company planting 10,000 acres of corn a villain. The widespread lack of public education has inspired mistrust toward big agriculture and has led consumers to ignore decades of scientific literature underscoring the benefits of our agricultural advancements.
Cutting through the Chatter
Most people understand that it will be increasingly difficult to feed the world. However, while they recognize the problem, they’re unmotivated to develop solutions. Instead, many consumers absorb the media coverage that declares that GMOs and pesticides will destroy humanity as we know it — and this media doubt trickles down to strongly influences pesticide decisions.
Thus, many believe it’s up to the government and the agricultural industry to do the research and then determine the best course of action. The truth is that, while there is a great deal of research being done by both parties, neither does a very good job of informing consumers — and when information is distributed, the public doesn’t necessarily acknowledge the implications. The public distrust of politicians mars the impact of the studies completed by the government, leaving the very people entrusted to solve the problem in a catch-22.
Despite this, government leaders and food growers need to improve the frequency and thoroughness of their communication of the facts. While the government is generally better than food producers when it comes to distributing information, academia has proven to be the best source for hard evidence. Leaving a third party to inform a media-savvy public is dangerous to the food-producing mission.
Asking the Right Questions
What questions should researchers — and the public — be asking to ensure people around the world have enough food to eat in 2053?
First, it’s important to ask what goes into our food. Take an apple, for example. It’s covered with pesticides to keep bugs away while it’s on the tree. That seems practical; if apple crops were eaten by pests, we’d pay five dollars per apple, and that renders the ability to feed billions of people impossible.
Then, we spray that apple with wax. Yes, it looks shinier and fresher, but that wax also locks in the pesticide. Once the apple arrives at the grocery store, more wax is added to make it look more appealing and last longer. This is the small-scale version of our enhancement via additives. As foods become more processed, an exponential number of additives enter the mix.
On the other hand, too much emphasis is placed on asking where a particular food was grown. It’s a great economic boost to eat locally grown goods, but if this food were eaten exclusively, there would be regions of the U.S. where community members would eat nothing but squash and onions. When we address feeding the rest of the world, it’s impossible to isolate regions and insist that the solution to their famine is local farming. The fact is that in order to ensure nutritious food is available globally year-round, there will be tradeoffs.
We will be able to feed the world population if leaders and growers discuss the situation objectively while promoting the hard facts. Consumers may have relied on the media to educate them, but it’s the responsibility of each individual to take an interest in ensuring the next generation has food to eat. With modern communication, we have an opportunity to create a reality-based, global education about farming we never could have achieved in the past.
Our current relationship with food is crippling our ability to feed the people on the planet today. We won’t grow a new landmass the size of Russia in the next four decades, but with thorough, insightful education, we’ll likely be able to make the advancements needed to feed 9 billion people in 2053.
For nearly 30 years, Doug Austin has been studying the “art of observation” and filtering out the human truths. Whether digging for key customer/consumer insights or preparing the next national retail promotion, it’s all about the ability to “hear and see” what others may not and asking the hard questions that get us to the possibilities. Austin is the SVP of Growth & Innovation and leads product and brand innovation sessions for Marlin Network.