The future of food

This post was written in collaboration with the team at C³. Learn more about C³ at the end of the post. 

Our work is not meant to serve as an all-inclusive summary on the topic, but instead is meant to serve as a starting point for thinking and learning about it. We outline important factors to consider as you form your own opinion rather than trying to push you in one direction or another


Structuring the discussion

OECD discussion

  • This part of the debate involves the citizens of the developed world becoming more conscious of what they eat, how they acquire their food and what the impacts of their food choices are.
    • AI – How can the implementation of artificial intelligence drive consumption patterns or choices in the developed world?
    • Will plant-based diets grow in popularity? The predominant drivers are likely to be:
      • Health related reasons
      • Animal cruelty reasons
      • Environmental reasons

Global discussion

  • This considers the entire global population which will continue to grow. How will these people be fed? What will they be fed? Will they be fed?
    • We will see a combination of an increased need for food and a demand for better types of food.

Key issues and implications

Growing World Population

  • According to the UN, the world population will grow from 7.6 billion to 9.8 billion by 2050. This puts tremendous pressure on food producers as they need to find a balance between increasing production to feed the world and fighting the challenges posed by climate change. 

Food waste

  • Waste is on the rise at retail and household level (FAO 2017), but 820 million people remain under nourished. It is not that we are not producing enough food but instead that lack of purchasing power in some areas means that food is not optimally distributed.

Agricultural production

  • Agricultural production tripled between 1960 and 2015 (think of the Green Revolution). We need our yields to keep growing but yield growth has slowed and may come to a standstill.
  • Food supply chains also lengthened which leads to an increase in food waste at each stage of the supply chain and especially in the storage stage.
  • Production -> Processing and packaging -> Storage -> Wholesale distribution -> Retail redistribution to consumers.

Deadly cycle

  • Food and agriculture are impacted by and contribute to climate change:
    • There is a positive feedback mechanism, or as we call it ‘The Cycle’:
      • Agriculture causes 20% of GHG emissions, but is also one of the industries most damaged by climate change (floods, droughts, heat waves). We already have 33% of global farmland being moderately to highly degraded (FAO 2017).
    • Elevated levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may cause declines in zinc, iron and protein content in staple crops such as wheat, rice, field peas and soybeans (FAO 2016), meaning that we would then need to plant more to obtain the same nutritional intake as before. This will require additional usage of already scarce resources.

Meat Alternatives

  • Meat alternatives are considered a powerful catalyst in the fight against climate change as it could substantially decrease the need for cattle.
  • A winner for those who are reducing meat consumption for reasons regarding animal cruelty and environment protection.

Argument Nuances

Are meat replacements healthier choice?

  • Meat replacement products contain 3-5x more sodium than regular meat and are carcinogenic (GMO) in some cases. This argument complexity pertains most directly to those that avoid meat for health reasons.
  • There is very little evidence that meat substitutes are better than organic unprocessed meat products. For example – there is no compelling evidence that a Beyond Meat patty is healthier than an organic grass fed fillet. However, it is certeinly healthier than most burger patties that meat lovers consume.

By how much can emissions be reduced by reducing meat consumption?

  • Total emissions from agriculture are approximately 20% of overall emissions, playing a greater role than all transport in the world. An argument that will often be heard is that ending meat consumption entirely will reduce emissions by 75%.
  • The first problem with this is that this reduction is not going to happen and the second is that it is misleading because it is 75% of 20% so actually only reducing emissions by 15%.
  • It can be argued that this ‘scare tactic’ is needed to get people to act. Whether this is the correct approach is another discussion entirely on its own, but it is worthwhile to be aware that these misleading figures are being used.

Organic is always good

  • In the last few years we have seen a trend towards eating organic foods. There is complexity attached to this. The advantage of organic food is that it is significantly healthier for the individual, however it comes at a large cost to society. 
  • Almost by definition, organic foods are wasteful – with no pesticides to protect the crop, large amounts are lost. Organic foods will and should remain accessible only to a minority (there is an argument to be made about the groups to which it is available however), as the world does not have the capability to produce organic fruit and vegetables for 10 billion people.

Potential Solutions

Producing more and better

  • Genetic engineering and other agricultural advances will be a key ingredient in producing food for over 10 billion people. This may come from genetic modification, or higher quality fertilizers. It simply will not be possible to feed the world’s growing population without these advances.
  • With a rapidly changing environment, it will be vital to add genes that will allow plants to survive in their new environments whether it be hotter, drier, colder or wetter.
  • Although in the highest echelons of the developed world there is a movement away from GMOs and non-organic foods, it will remain only for a few. The world simply cannot be fed on organic, non-GMO ingredients.

Reducing Waste

  • Vertical Farming
    • According to the USDA, “fresh produce grown in vertical farms travels only a few miles to reach grocery store shelves compared to conventional produce, which can travel thousands of miles by truck or plane.”
    • Vertical farming may help decrease the size of the food supply chain which dramatically increased after the green revolution. This will decrease the oversupply of food by allowing each city to take control of their vertical farms and producing the “right” amount of food for the city based on forecasted needs. These needs may be forcecasted by a range of AI programs (see further on AI below).
    • Further, vertical farming hugely reduces water requirements (85-90%), although the jury is still out on the electricity needs of this process.
  • Artificial intelligence
    • In the future, we may see AI software telling you exactly what you need to eat and how much of it, meaning that the amount of food wasted in OECD households in particular can be largely reduced.
  • Frozen fruit and vegetables
    • Buying and using frozen fruit and vegetables can substantially reduce waste. Further, most evidence suggests it may be healthier than fresh fruit and vegetables because they will be picked closest to their nutritional peak, and then flashfrozen, maximising the nutrition we get from them (Li et al., 2017).
  • Government intervention
    • Mandatory for grocers to give away unsold food to homeless shelters on day of expiration date in order to minimize waste.

Reducing Emissions

  • Government intervention
    • Mandatory adoption of best practices can reduce livestock sector emissions by 30% (Gerber et al., 2013).
  • Meat consumption reduction regardless of reason will be crucial to reducing the emissions of the agricultural sector.


C³ – Critical Creative Collaboration

This post was written in collaboration with the team at C³.

Who: We are a diverse community based in New York City. 

What: At its simplest form, C³ functions as an idea club. Every month we dig into a curated list of books, journals, articles, podcasts and documentaries focused on a core idea. We come together for a day of fruitful conversation and collect all our most insightful discoveries in a single post that we share here with you.


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