Future of Food: Responsible Production
Connecting yield increase and sustainability
As the world grows to nearly 10 billion people in 2050, demand for food is expected to grow by more than 50 percent. Meanwhile, planetary boundaries are already under pressure, and the food and agriculture sector is a significant contributor. Scaling the current food system is therefore not an option. More effective and responsible production practices are needed.
Zooming in on 3 areas that connect yield increase with a decrease of planetary impact: advanced farming operations, conscious supply chains, and new market opportunities.
- Focus area 1: Advanced farming operations
- Focus area 2: Conscious Supply Chains
- Focus area 3: New markets & solutions
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The first step: a look at 2025
Imagine it is 2025. From her living room in Paris, a consumer is looking at the virtual shelves of her usual supermarket. She wants to cook a healthy, nutritious and eco-friendly dinner tonight. The certifications on some plant-based burgers give her insight into the supply chain of the burgers. The quality, fairness and environmental impact of the burgers are transparent as the full value chain is fully traceable. The raw materials of these burgers are grown at a vertical farm in the periphery of Paris that produces maximum yields with minimal resources. On this farm, sensors are measuring the amount of water and fertiliser that a crop needs, and drones subsequently provide exactly this quantity. On the adjacent field robots are harvesting the crops and preparing these for transport. Meanwhile, electric vehicles are transporting raw materials from another field to a nearby climate neutral production facility where these are processed, packaged and transported to consumers. Across the globe, vertical farms like these are widespread in areas of high population density, providing a fresh food supply produced within planetary boundaries.
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Urgency for responsible production
The above 2025 scenario would be a first step into the right direction, but the change that is needed to prepare for the future is of much larger scale. By 2050 the world’s population is expected to reach 9.8 billion people1 , and wealth is expected to increase, causing demand for food to increase by more than 50 percent2. While there is an urgent need to scale, we are rapidly reaching the limits of what the environment can endure.
The figures below show 2050 estimations of increase of consumption per region, and increase in planetary impact. To meet the challenge governments and businesses across the globe need to take action.
Figure 1: Graph of base case for consumption in key crops (2010 – 2050). Gigacalorie consumption was calculated from EAT-Lancet Commission’s average kcal consumption per country and their estimation of population per country. The population increase has been calculated at region level based on EAT-Lancet forecast. The kilocalories were calculated using a weighted average diet of each country.
Focus area 1: Advanced farming operations
Over the past decades the farming industry has undergone a massive transformation with the introduction of modern technology, resulting in a significant increase in crop yields4. Moving forward with further advanced farming operations together with reducing environmental impact is required.
Increasing intelligence and precision in the farming industry provides opportunities to increase yields while reducing use of resources such as water and fertilisers. Innovations like micro-sensors, aerial crop imaging and robotic soil samplers can give farmers specific insight in the conditions of their crops. Technologies like robotic weed or pest killers, robotic fertilisers and autonomous pickers enable accurate and intelligent actions.
Besides increasing yields on the current fields, high-density vertical farming offers a solution to achieve a zero-net expansion of agricultural land. By using vertical surfaces or layers, farmers can increase cultivation of crops, without increasing land usage. In such environments, climate replication and optimal growing wavelengths offer opportunities to optimise growing conditions.
Next to high-tech solutions, also low-tech measures realise significant improvement. Countries can move toward the safe operating space regarding fresh water use by improving water management. This can be done through increasing basin efficiency and storage capacity, better utilisation of rainwater, and improved irrigation systems. Biodiversity can also be stimulated through low-tech measures by leaving parts of land over to nature, while cover crops can be used to improve soil quality.
The table below provides a categorised overview of farming innovations.
Focus area 2: Conscious Supply Chains
Food corporations need a reliable, sustainable and quality supply of raw materials from farmers at a competitive price to serve their consumers. Developing value propositions that enhance the economic and social well-being of the farming community, nurturing farmer relationships, and building loyalty will result in a win-win outcome, and provide the basis for further leaps in sustainable production.
Tapping into the value of the conscious consumer
As research has shown, 73 percent of millennials are willing to pay more for sustainably produced products5 . Product certification and new technologies that enable track and trace of the value chain can help capture the added market value associated with sustainable production practices across the whole chain. In France the Haute Valeur Environnementale (HVE) certification program has grown rapidly, allowing farmers to communicate their impact in four areas – biodiversity, plant protection strategy, management of fertiliser use, and management of water – to consumers6 . Production facilities offer an opportunity to reduce emissions, exemplified by Danone’s carbon neutral Wexford production facility7 . Innovations in food packaging such as a new packaging film that adapts to changing temperatures8 extend shelf life. Also Cargill has recently launched their CocoaWise platform which provides their customers with fast, easy access to the sustainability data of Cargill’s cocoa supply chain9 .
Focus area 3: New markets & solutions
The imminent transformation to a more sustainable food system offers opportunities for new solutions and markets.
Plant based food
Venture capital investment in plant-based food, cultivated meat, and fermentation have grown significantly over the past decade10 . Companies like Burger King and McDonald’s have responded to this trend by launching vegan menu items like plant-based burgers, nuggets and sandwiches11 .
Inputs used in farming operations
The inputs used in farming operations form another growing market. To improve crop performance, organisations are creating new strains of crops using genomic selection12 . Beyond selection, genetic modification is used to engineer new strains of rice that increase yields and reduce methane emissions13 . Feed additives are also being developed to reduce methane emissions from livestock14 and reduce reliance on wild fish stock.
New services and support models
New services and support models are emerging to help more farmers reach their productive capacity. An example is the rise of farming intelligence services. Data-sharing platforms are building networks of farmers, thus creating a farmer-driven information source to support farmers in making informed decisions15 . Additionally, precision farming and farm management platforms offer specific data-driven insights in farming operations to enable more efficient, profitable and sustainable farming practices16 .
So far we explained the urgency of a more responsible food system and discussed how advancing farming operations, innovations in the value chain and new markets and products can be part of the solution. To implement these innovations and build a responsible food system, we need to take collaborative action. Farm input providers, farmers, food producers and processors, food distributers and retailers, but also the public sector, financial institutions and many others need to do their share. Together, we can build a food system that feeds the entire population while operating within planetary boundaries.
Connect to take on the challenge
Feel free to connect with us if you’d like to explore what the food system transformation means for your organisation.
In the upcoming months, we are launching articles and hosting webinars zooming in on:
- The case for change
- Responsible production
- Responsible waste management
- Personalised healthy nutrition
- Ecosystem orchestration
Sign up here if you’d like us to keep you updated on the release of the upcoming articles and webinars deep-diving into these transformation themes.
2-Deloitte analysis of EAT-Lancet data: Estimated increase in global caloric demand 2010 to 2050.
3-Springmann M, Clark M, Mason-D’Croz D, et al. Options for keeping the food system within environmental limits. Nature 2018; 562: 519–25.
Published: December 2020