Insights · February 7th, 2011

Here is a brief video clip from my keynote speech to Buhler in 2010, focusing on the Challenge of Food Security.

As I suggest in the video, the upcoming challenge of food security is the overwhelming amount of food we need to produce to feed the quickly growing world population. In August, when the speech was originally given, the world population was 6.8 billion. Six months later, we have already passed 6.9 billion, which puts us on track to reach 9 billion by 2042, or with the most conservative estimates, as I said in my speech, by the year 2050. That means that in the next 40 years or so we will have to produce as much food as in all of history up until now.

Producing that much food will be a huge challenge and requires 21st century agriculture to be sustainable and economical in order to allow this many people to survive at a reasonable standard of living. Most expert observers of the recent street-revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt point to rising food prices as a fundamental driver of the desperation of the people. In nations like these, food security revolves around sufficient supply and affordable prices.

In richer nations like the United States, food security involves the same issues, but there are other factors important to the future. For example, in emergency situations what are the abilities of localized areas to produce food? In most cases, not much, which means maintaining the ability to transport food great distances is important. Interrupt transportation and most localities would get hungry in a week or two. In the long run food security must focus on whether current industrial agriculture practices regarding petroleum-based fertilizer, herbicide, and pesticide use are sustainable, not to mention environmentally sound. On these issues we forecast a growing movement to supplement and even to replace a portion of traditional and very large scale agriculture. Traditional practices will dominate for decades to come, but the local, healthy and organic food movements continue to grow. Improved ability to produce food locally and healthier diets will both be part of future food security.

Mark Bittman, New York Times food writer, recently offered his list of ideas for improving the food picture in the U.S., and thus enhancing our own food security in a piece he titled A Food Manifesto for the Future.

Here are some ideas — frequently discussed, but sadly not yet implemented — that would make the growing, preparation and consumption of food healthier, saner, more productive, less damaging and more enduring. In no particular order:

  • End government subsidies to processed food. We grow more corn for livestock and cars than for humans, and it’s subsidized by more than $3 billion annually; most of it is processed beyond recognition. The story is similar for other crops, including soy: 98 percent of soybean meal becomes livestock feed, while most soybean oil is used in processed foods. Meanwhile, the marketers of the junk food made from these crops receive tax write-offs for the costs of promoting their wares. Total agricultural subsidies in 2009 were around $16 billion, which would pay for a great many of the ideas that follow.
  • Begin subsidies to those who produce and sell actual food for direct consumption. Small farmers and their employees need to make living wages. Markets — from super- to farmers’ — should be supported …
  • Break up the U.S. Department of Agriculture and empower the Food and Drug Administration. Currently, the U.S.D.A. counts among its missions both expanding markets for agricultural products (like corn and soy!) and providing nutrition education. These goals are at odds with each other; you can’t sell garbage while telling people not to eat it, and we need an agency devoted to encouraging sane eating. …
  • Outlaw concentrated animal feeding operations and encourage the development of sustainable animal husbandry. The concentrated system degrades the environment, directly and indirectly, while torturing animals and producing tainted meat, poultry, eggs, and, more recently, fish. Sustainable methods of producing meat for consumption exist. …
  • Encourage and subsidize home cooking. (Someday soon, I’ll write about my idea for a new Civilian Cooking Corps.) When people cook their own food, they make better choices. When families eat together, they’re more stable. We should provide food education for children (a new form of home ec, anyone?), cooking classes for anyone who wants them and even cooking assistance for those unable to cook for themselves.
  • Tax the marketing and sale of unhealthful foods. Another budget booster….
  • Reduce waste and encourage recycling. The environmental stress incurred by unabsorbed fertilizer cannot be overestimated, and has caused, for example, a 6,000-square-mile dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that is probably more damaging than the BP oil spill. …
  • Mandate truth in labeling. Nearly everything labeled “healthy” or “natural” is not. …
  • Reinvest in research geared toward leading a global movement in sustainable agriculture, combining technology and tradition to create a new and meaningful Green Revolution.

I would not be eager to turn functions of the USDA over to the FDA, but more carefully defining and separating the missions of each would be a positive step, particularly as regards the encouragement of healthy eating. Rethinking subsidies would be nice as would some support for local food production, though very hard to do because of the big money involved. The encouragement of home cooking also sounds great – we are doing more of that ourselves – but as responders to his article point out this is a huge challenge in a time-short culture where fast food tends to be quite a bit cheaper, calorie for calorie, than home-cooked food.

Food security, in its many meanings, will be an issue of increasing importance over the next few decades.

Glen Hiemstra is a futurist speaker, author, consultant, blogger, internet video host and Founder of Futurist.com. To arrange for a speech contact Futurist.com.

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Business & Economy Environment & Energy
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Nikolas Badminton

Nikolas is the Chief Futurist of the Futurist Think Tank. He is world-renowned futurist speaker, a Fellow of The RSA, and has worked with over 300 of the world’s most impactful companies to establish strategic foresight capabilities, identify trends shaping our world, help anticipate unforeseen risks, and design equitable futures for all. In his new book – ‘Facing Our Futures’ – he challenges short-term thinking and provides executives and organizations with the foundations for futures design and the tools to ignite curiosity, create a framework for futures exploration, and shift their mindset from what is to WHAT IF…

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