2012-02-21

Co.Exist

What The Global Food Supply Will Look Like In 2021

Depending on circumstances, we could be headed for either an amazing future where we’re printing food or a disaster where people are barely scraping by growing a few vegetables on their roofs. Here are four different scenarios about how we will be eating in a decade.

Your food consumption might look quite a bit different a decade from now. Colony collapse disorder, foodborne disease outbreaks, and climate change are just some of the factors that are making our collective food future increasingly uncertain.

As usual, the experts at the Silicon Valley-based Institute for the Future (IFTF) are on the case, offering up four scenarios for what the future of food might look like in 2021. "We start with four archetypes and try to figure out what extreme futures of food might look like of each imaginable possibility," explains Miriam Lueck Avery, research director at IFTF.

To that end, IFTF laid out four possible futures (the same set of futures that the organization generally uses) for our food situation in 2012: growth, constraint, collapse, and collaboration.

Growth

Energy technology breakthroughs in the coming decade have ensured that we can have cheap, bountiful food from all over the world. Biotechnology is rampant, with hybrid crops making sure that places hit hard by climate change (arid climates) still have a stable food supply. The problems in this world include increased rates of heart disease and diabetes (from so much food access), waste management, and the ever-threatening peak phosphorous.

Constraint

A major food poisoning outbreak destroys the global food supply chain almost instantly. One in five industrial meat producers have to slaughter animals before a cause is found. This sparks a massive "eat local" movement, with people converting rooftops and other open spaces into land for farming. Ultimately, this leads to a situation where urban farming supplies a large amount of food to residents, and most people buy their food from CSAs and farmer’s markets. It sounds fairly idyllic, but stability comes only after food riots and dramatic drops in availability of packaged food and commodity crops. People also pay a premium for eating resource-intensive food that comes from far away.

This scenario is a continuation of trends that Europe has experienced in the past decade--including a steady drop in meat consumption and the rise of the slow food movement.

Collapse

Exactly what it sounds like: total collapse of the food system. 2.5 billion people live without enough food worldwide--a number expected to almost double by 2030 as climate change continues to ravage crops. Bee populations dropped precipitously in 2013, causing pollinated crops--including many nuts, legumes, fruits, and vegetables--to virtually disappear. Wheat rusts, floods, and corn blights don’t help the situation. Neither does a refusal to acknowledge the environmental challenges in our midst. Everyone increasingly relies on "miracle foods" (i.e. vitamin-enhanced rice) originally created for the developing world, and meat is scarce.

A food printer designed by MIT.

Transformation

Lab-grown meat is common, as are 3-D food printers. So-called Food Gurus--people who sell downloadable 3-D printer recipes--are transforming the food landscape. But in the face of all this new technology, there is a revival of home cooking among a group calling themselves the Authentic Eaters. Thanks to a reliance on lab-grown meat, commodity crops previously used for meat production now go directly to human mouths, lessening the pressure on the food production system.

The future will probably look like a combination of all these scenarios--and of course, there will be regional differences. "Latin America is experiencing a growth scenario right now but North America is experiencing a constraint scenario," says Avery.

IFTF researched four different regions--North America, Brazil, Europe, and China--to see what local differences may look like. In Brazil, for example, IFTF forecasts the rise of culinary ecopatriotism--the idea that we need to eat biodiversity in order to save it. "There is the entree of peculiar, idiosyncratic flavors from the Amazon," says Avery. "It’s tied to the imperative for sustainability and the conservation of natural biodiversity as a resource in future scenarios like 'collapse’ where variety is being decimated."

And where is North America most likely to be a decade down the line? "We’re walking the line between constraint and collapse," she says. “But transformation is a growing possibility.”

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2 Comments

  • Trey Shelton

    I'm surprised they didn't talk about antibiotics here. There's a very real possibility many of them quit working in the next decade or two. This would have huge ramifications for the food supply and will cost millions of lives.

    I also think eating insects could be an interesting option if things get really bad. They already are a staple of many diets around the world and things like crustaceans really aren't that far off. While I personally wouldn't be happy about trading in my ribeye for a mealworm, they would be a dependable source of protein that can be easily grown.

  • Alexander Mark

    Food is a huge issue, but water is going to be even bigger. Yes, people will be able to pay a premium for expensive desalinated water from the ocean. But in poorer areas, more and more people will squeeze local water supplies until the population cannot be supported, leading to massive death.