Auburn Speaks
Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development

The Future of the Food System

Written by Bill Batchelor

The emergence of the modern food system around the turn of the 20th century was critical in the massive urbanization of people and the tremendous expansion of economic activity that would soon follow. Prior to that time, most people lived in rural areas and worked in food production. A large proportion of the U.S. population was required to produce the food we consumed. But as scientific and engineering advancements in agriculture led to more efficient food production, labor was freed up to develop and work in companies producing a vast array of goods and services around the world. As a result, in developed countries today, less than 7 percent of the population is needed to produce food for the remaining 93 percent – an amazing tribute to our modern food system.

But this system is more complex than simply producing food. It is comprised of companies that supply inputs such as seeds, fertilizer and pesticides to farmers. It includes farmers who grow food, wholesale companies that buy food from farmers and producers who buy raw commodities to create processed food products. This system also must have retailers to distribute food products to consumers and regulators to ensure that we have a safe food supply.

In fact, while less than 2 percent of the U.S. population grows food, approximately 17 percent of all jobs in this country are in the food system. In 2012 alone, food production, processing, distribution, retail and services industries sold more than $1.8 trillion in goods and services, representing approximately 13 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product.
Our modern food system is significant to our workforce and economy, to say the least. But it is not without challenges. The system that has fed the largest, most diverse global population in human history may not be the system we see in the decades moving forward – at least not in its current form. The societal and technological shifts we have seen in recent years – and will continue to see – are placing new pressures on our food system, challenging us to feed a human population living in a much different world than we experienced in the 20th century.

Challenges facing the food system

Growing population
By the year 2050, it is estimated the world’s population will grow from 7 billion today to more than 9 billion. The number of global middle-class citizens – the demographic with the greatest buying power – will triple from 1 billion people today to more than 3 billion people by 2050. Demand for food by this increasing population and emerging middle class would require an increase in world food production of 70-100 percent in the next 37 years.
But the land needed for increased food production is decreasing each year due to urbanization and unsustainable management practices. Agricultural scientists will have to develop crop varieties that will tolerate stresses such as drought, pests and sub-optimum soil fertility. New work in cropping systems will be required to intensify crop production in a sustainable manner. New genetics will also be needed that produce more food per unit of input.
In 1990, 40 percent of the world population lived in cities. By 2030, 60 percent of all people will live in cities, and by 2050, 70 percent of the world will live in cities, according to the World Health Organization. Urbanization will pose challenges to the food system not only through more people, but specifically through more urban middle class people who demand a higher quality diet and poorer populations that will become more disconnected from local food production.
As the global food system becomes more consolidated, more urban people will be more dependent upon food supplied by fewer companies, and food will tend to come from further away as costs are reduced. The system will become more vulnerable to food safety issues as food supplies travel farther distances, and contamination at a point source may spread rapidly to a large number of people.
Affordability of food and food security will also become major issues. As the urban poor become disconnected from their local food systems, they will become more dependent on large multi-national corporations that dominate food distribution to urban areas. This population spends most of its income on food, and its health, nutritional status and even political stability is highly dependent upon food price.
Globalization of the Food System
In the past 100 years, each component of the food system has continued to consolidate due to economy of scale. Over time, this concentrates more power in the hands of fewer multinational companies that have control over what products are sold in which markets and at what price. An example of this is phosphorus, where three multinational companies control the majority of the world phosphorus market and have pricing power of this input that farmers need around the world. Fewer companies have more purchasing power of price paid to farmers for their commodities, making farmers financially vulnerable.
Changes in Technology
Agricultural scientists today are using biotechnology to develop plants with increased yields. This enables them to quickly create crops with traits such as improved drought tolerance and disease resistance. Scientists have also used biotechnology to introduce proteins from foreign species into agronomic crops to obtain a desired trait, such as pest resistance.
While this technology is advancing crop production and yield in many ways, there are groups opposed to genetic modification of plants. There is also opposition due to the aspect of patent law, which can give a company control over genes important for increasing crop yield for a period of years and, in turn, give them control over important marketing advances in crop yields.
Changes in consumer attitudes and values
The current animal production system used in the U.S. and in many parts of the world relies on confined systems that yield a low cost of production. However, consumers around the world are beginning to push back on confinement systems from an animal rights perspective.
As a result, Burger King, for example, has committed to selling only products from free-range poultry and hogs beginning in 2017. McDonald’s has a similar requirement to sell only cage-free eggs.
Consumer-driven demands on how food is produced requires changes in food production. This also increases the cost of production and can place pressure for profit on the production end of the food system.
Changes in consumer consumption patterns
The U.S. reached a milestone in 2012, when more than half of our meals were eaten away from home. This has a dramatic impact on the food system, first through its implications on the distribution of food as more meals are consumed through restaurants than stores. In the U.S. today, we have fewer than 37,000 supermarkets and fewer than 55,000 non-traditional grocery stores, but we have 970,000 restaurants.
Our increasing gravitation toward restaurants also has implications for human health, as restaurant food is often loaded with sugar, salt and fat, which may lead to health problems such as heart disease and obesity. In turn, it has further implications for the food we consume at home. Time is at a premium as we become more urbanized, and more consumers now prefer ready-made meals. Food manufacturers will have to continue seeking ways to develop ready-made meals that are both nutritionally sufficient and attractive to consumers.
As you can see, feeding our communities and our world today is constantly changing. Technologies change, environments change, societies change – and we, as agriculturalists, must chart the path of advancement that will continue to feed this growing and ever-changing world. This path has implications for researchers not just in the food sciences but those in engineering, public policy, economics, transportation, human health, renewable energy and more.
The challenges to our food system are great, and they encompass many different industries and disciplines. I am convinced that the solutions to these challenges will arise not just through the expertise and devotion of research resources in each of these fields but through a collective focus on a common global objective. My challenge to the students and researchers at Auburn University and at research centers everywhere is this: Know the world around you, know the community around you. What are its greatest challenges, and why do those challenges exist? Let those be the guiding principles of your research.

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