November-December 2015: The Future of Food

Is the world moving toward a healthier, more sustainable food system?

flickr_Steven Depolo

By Kevin Osborn, futurist, Future in Focus

While unhealthy diets are recognized as a major risk factor for many chronic diseases and other medical disorders, developing and adopting healthier dietary patterns is a complex challenge.

A shift toward healthier diets would involve not only changes in the food supply, but also technological advances, economic considerations, demographics, social factors, and environmental consequences. It would also depend on food and diet research by both public agencies and private entities that produces clear scientific evidence indicating what changes need to be made.

flckr_marioThe European Commission, the executive body of the Europena Union (EU), recently attempted to develop a road map for such research. In 2014, the Joint Research Centre (JRC) — the in-house science service of the European Commission—published a foresight study entitled “Tomorrow’s Healthy Society: Research Priorities for Foods and Diets.”

The study resulted from a year-long series of workshops that culminated in the creation of four distinct scenarios focused on possible futures for the EU food supply as well as for consumer food purchase, food preparation, and eating habits.

The aim of the scenarios was to identify research priorities regarding the establishment and promotion of healthy food and diet in the EU between the present and 2050 — priorities that will be relevant regardless of which of the scenarios (if any) unfolds.

Hawaiianparty_flickr_LisaKEY FINDINGS

  • In an attempt to develop universal baselines on what constitutes healthy eating and to promote, support, and encourage healthier diets, the EU has established new priorities for food and diet research.
  • Many governments will enact policies intended to motivate consumers to adopt healthier diets — and companies to make these diets available.
  • More granular research will progressively allow the tailoring of individualized diets not only to promote continued health, but also to prevent (or treat) disease.

teaparty_flickr_Meal Makeover MomsSCENARIOS FOR FUTURE FOOD AND DIETS

To identify food and diet research priorities through 2050, the JRC sponsored workshops attended by a broad range of experts and stakeholders from both the public and private spheres.

The workshops, held over the course of a year, developed four possible scenarios for the future of food and diet based on two critical axes of uncertainty: agricultural commodity prices (high or low); and societal values (community spirit or individualistic society).

Using the extremes of these axes, the group generated four distinct scenarios:

  • Healthy New World (agricultural commodity prices low; community-oriented society valuing the importance of common goods, rights, and social justice): A highly regulated market favors larger entities and consolidation. Food technology innovations focus on combining health and nutrition standards with convenience and taste.
  • 7197 copyHeal the World (agricultural commodity prices high; community-oriented society valuing the importance of common goods, rights, and social justice): A concentrated agro-food chain focuses on sustainable products. Food technology innovations focus on environmentally sustainable production and distribution.
  • Eat to Live (agricultural commodity prices high; individualistic society valuing individual rights and initiative, and self-interest before the common good): The importance of economies of scale leads to greater concentration and integration, and multinationals dominate. Food technology innovations focus on cost-efficient production.
  • Me, Myself, and I (agricultural commodity prices low; individualistic society valuing individual rights and initiative, and self-interest before the common good): A diverse landscape of food producers provides opportunities for small and medium enterprises, and global trade allows multinationals to source materials efficiently. Food technology innovations are diverse and taken up as they become available.

shutterstock_1881575483 BUSINESS IMPLICATIONS

  • Through its focus on research priorities, the JRC presents one of the most thorough and systematic approaches to date for revamping the global food system in the service of healthy and sustainable diets. Its recommendations could prove to be widely influential, and food companies and those in adjacent spaces should review these recommendations in light of both their own research priorities and how regulators, policymakers and, ultimately, consumers might be influenced by them.
  • While this study confines its scope to the EU, its recommendations on food and diet research priorities extend to other developed economies as well. New policies to foster a healthier food supply and diets will likely be introduced in the EU, Canada, and other developed markets before the end of the decade. Though opposition to regulation may slow adoption of such policies in the US, they will likely be implemented in the US in the years that follow.
  • 7408-1As these research priorities suggest, governments in developed economies will increasingly focus policies in coming decades on encouraging consumer adoption of healthier diets — and on inducing companies to supply healthier food choices.
  • In addition to expanded use of educational campaigns, taxation of specific foods and food components, other taxes and subsidies, marketing restrictions, and the development of new, more detailed food and nutrition labels, governments may also direct policies toward achieving such goals as fostering a more sustainable food system and creating novel foods and food components.

For more information on the Future of Food, check out the sidebars (right), and also our  many Food + Agriculture briefs.