The global food system is nearing an inflection point. By 2050, countries around the world must find a way to produce more food than they have in the past 8,000 years to accommodate a global population that is set to rise by 2 billion people by mid-century. “Climate change is becoming a source of significant additional risks for agriculture and food systems,” according to the World Bank, and increasing water stress around the world means we'll soon have to do more with less.
All the while, today's consumers are demanding more information about how their food impacts people and the planet—leaving food companies in a race to deliver greater transparency.
Last week, food industry experts convened at Harvard University for the Small Change, Big Impact Food Summit to discuss these issues and more. Co-hosted by Hormel Foods and Harvard University Dining Services, the event touched on challenges stemming from land degradation, water stress and climate change, as well as consumer trends like plant-based eating that are shaping the future of food. Here are just a few of their predictions.
1. Pressure for transparency will only increase
The way people buy their food—and who they buy it from—is changing rapidly. More than 60 percent of Americans cite healthfulness as a primary driver of their food purchases, surpassing even convenience, according to a 2018 survey conducted by the International Food Information Council Foundation. Another 59 percent said they feel it’s important for the food they buy to be produced sustainably.
The rising demand for greater transparency around health and environmental metrics shows no signs of slowing down—and large companies must respond by taking greater steps to share more information with customers, predicts Jim Snee, chairman and CEO of Hormel Foods.
"Over time, consumers and customers will continue to expect more transparency, meaning our processes—from the farm to the factory—will have to evolve and continue to be re-engineered," Snee said. "Our consumers will continue to have increasingly high expectations for their food, and as a global branded food company, we have an obligation to try and move that needle."
2. Soil degradation necessitates innovation on the farm
More than 95 percent of the food we eat depends on a mere 6 inches of topsoil—and this thin, life-giving layer of dirt is diminishing quickly: Research suggests we've already depleted around 70 percent of the world's topsoils. In 2015, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) calculated that we'll only have about 60 years of harvests left if soil degradation continues. "In some parts of the world, we’re down to about 20 harvests," said Todd Boyman, impact investor and CEO of plant-based meat purveyor Hungry Planet.
Considering it takes around 1,000 years for nature to replenish 3 centimeters of topsoil, these findings are distressing—to say the least—but they may serve as an impetus for accelerated innovation on farm fields around the world, Boyman predicted. "We’re not going to replace the 70 percent that we’ve lost, so we’ve got to figure out how best to use that soil in the most effective way within our supply chains."
3. Loss of farmland presents new challenges for stewardship
Today, 55 percent of the world’s population lives in urban areas. By 2050, that proportion is expected to reach 68 percent, according to the U.N. As more people move to cities and suburbs, former agricultural land is being developed at a startling pace.
"If you look at the United States, between 1992 and 2012, we’ve lost 31 million acres of usable farmland [to development]," said John Ghingo, president of natural and organic meat brand Applegate, which Hormel Foods acquired in 2015. "That puts pressure on the system, because if you think about those 2 billion people coming, they need somewhere to live, too."
Given the need to produce more food with fewer resources, Ghingo cautioned producers to be mindful of farmland loss in the coming years, as it could present additional risks for poor stewardship and soil degradation. "That’s the kind of thing that can lead to bad practices in terms of how you treat the land, because then it becomes all about output," he warned.
4. Plant-based eating is on a roll
The food sector is still buzzing over news that fast-food giant Burger King will test out a vegan burger from analog meat company Impossible Foods at 59 restaurants in and around St. Louis. The plant-based Impossible Burger is also set to hit grocery store shelves for the first time this year, along with a host of new vegan offerings from upstart and legacy food companies alike.
More than 30 percent of Americans plan to incorporate plant-based foods into their diet this year, and this trend will only accelerate, experts predict. "In virtually every venue, people are ready for these types of foods," said Boyman of Hungry Planet.
5. Policy change is needed to keep family farming alive
The world's farmer population is aging quickly: Among U.S. farmers, a mere 6 percent are 35 years old or younger. That means two-thirds of all U.S. farmland will change hands over the next 25 years, according to the National Young Farmers Coalition. But given the higher volume of young people pursuing higher education, an increasing number of young Americans are saddled with student loan debt—making banks reticent to sign off on more loans for expenditures needed to transition to careers in farming, such as land purchases or equipment.
"You can’t just wake up and say, 'I’m going to farm.'" said Janae Metzger, a third-generation farmer and assistant manager of Mogler Farms in central Iowa, a longtime Hormel Foods supplier. "You not only need resources, but also the passion for it. It’s not easy work."
In response, groups like the National Young Farmers Coalition are pushing for policy change across America, such as designating farming as a public service that allows for student loan forgiveness. Minnesota, for example, recently passed a Beginning Farmer Tax Credit to allow land transfers from older generations to younger generations of farmers. "That enabled more than 400 farms to transition" in the past year alone, said Martin Lemos, deputy director of the National Young Farmers Coalition. With results like these, look for policy change to continue playing a pivotal role in lifting up tomorrow's young farmers.
6. Food companies will demand changes in distribution
As diners seek more healthy, local and sustainable food choices, the industry will need to find new ways to get fresh food from local farmers to the brands and restaurants that want to buy it, said Jeffrey Amoscato, VP of supply chain and menu innovation for Shake Shack.
"There needs to be a real big shake-up in distribution," Amoscato said. "We want to find ways to get fresh, local products to us, and the big problem is the distribution system in between. It’s built for a certain way, and trying to change that will be a challenge for both small and large chains moving forward."
7. When it comes to food choices, we're nearing a "reckoning of simplicity"
Today's consumers are in constant search of options, as fast-fashion retailers put new clothes on the rack every few weeks and entertainment platforms like Netflix present new choices almost daily. In the food sector, however, quality-over-quantity may soon reign supreme, predicts Dan Coudreaut, former VP of culinary innovation for McDonald’s.
"There’s this insatiable need for new and this insatiable need to be all things to everyone. But it’s Business 101 that you can’t be all things to everyone," Coudreaut said. "I think there’s going to be a reckoning of simplicity. A shift is coming."
Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL.