One of the main factors that will contribute to the world’s journey towards an effectively sustainable future is the need to transform our food chain and the products we consume. This necessary transformation should also lead to the advancement of future health.
The changes to our food chain and the products we consume require regulation over produce to ensure an adequate supply of nutritious and affordable food, accessible to all, and to prevent the use of unhealthy or artificial ingredients in the production of the goods we consume.
A glimpse of what the future of food may look like can be found, for example, in the EU’s Farm to Fork Strategy. This strategy focuses on the transformation of how food is produced, distributed, and consumed, through five key objectives:
- Ensuring sustainable food production;
- Ensuring food security;
- Stimulating sustainable food consumption and facilitating the shift to healthy, sustainable diets;
- Reducing food loss and waste;
- Combating food fraud along the food supply chain.
The five listed objectives aim to establish a sustainable food system, but what would this look like in practice?
On the one hand, it is expected that primary food production will shift to smaller spaces, such as vertical farms, to prevent further deforestation, increase the amount of available land, reduce water usage, and lower the costs associated with large agricultural fields.
Moreover, the development of soilless cultivation techniques, like hydroponics and aeroponics, will enable plants to grow with less water and space, using water solutions to deliver nutrients to plants. The use of advanced technologies such as sensors, drones and even AI can also enhance the potentials of crop viability monitoring, optimising resource usage and improving efficiency. A rise in nature-inspired production methods is also being observed, with the diversification of crops and shift to lower intensity farming.
We can anticipate that these changes in food production techniques may also lead to a surge in urban agriculture, carried out on rooftops, indoor farming in cities, or in shared communal gardens.
This shift will hopefully lead to increasingly common short supply food chains, which represent one of the most important solutions for the creation of a sustainable and resilient food system. Short supply food chains have enormous environmental benefits as the distances and intermediaries between producers and consumers are significantly cut short, saving a considerable amount of greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, proximity helps improve the freshness and quality of the produce, which will not need (or will only need significantly less) preservative substances. It should nevertheless be noted that, if strong regulatory measures pushing for the implementation of exclusive short supply food chains are adopted, dietary changes may occur since certain types of produce largely consumed in the EU cannot be viably and sustainably produced within its territory (e.g., bananas and avocados). Furthermore, and in connection with the previous point, the produce we consume is also expected to undergo changes. One of the most visible trends in this regard is the rise of plant-based and cultured meat – produced in laboratories, through the culturing of animal cells – with the aim of minimising the serious environmental impacts of meat consumption. There is also the possibility that changes in the produce consumed will encompass recourse to less commonly explored foods, with the diversification of the food we eat being pointed out as one of the main solutions to alleviate hunger. From edible plants that are currently
not being cultivated for food, through to insects, there are plenty of options that may be added to our food chains in the future. The introduction of new types of produce into our diet must, nevertheless, meet quality, safety, and health standards.
It is expected that produce will have a significantly lower amount of pesticides and other harmful chemicals, not only due to the abovementioned change in production techniques, but also due to regulatory nudges in this direction and increasing consumer awareness. A particular concern is the use of antibiotics and antimicrobials in the production of food (namely in farming and livestock farming), which may lead to decreased intrinsic resilience and immunity, the ineffectiveness of currently used medical products and the spread of bacteria with resistance genes.
Another expected trend is the improvement of systems aimed at preventing food waste. The use of technology, the redistribution of food that can no longer be commercialised but that still meets safety standards, and the establishment of incentives to prefer food close to its expiry date are measures already being implemented and which can help reach this goal.
The trends outlined here are obviously not limited to the EU and are being explored, developed, and adopted globally, as part of a general effort to create a more sustainable and resilient food system. Consumers everywhere are growing more aware of the need for a more organic, sustainable, and fairer food chain that also ensures health benefits and the protection of animal welfare.
The role of legislative changes and policies is central to the future of food systems, as it has the potential to facilitate the acceleration of the abovementioned trends. Robust legal frameworks are essential to:
- Provide incentives promoting the implementation of the described practices, for example, tax incentives for sustainable and healthy products;
- Prevent food fraud, deceptive marketing, and any type of greenwashing or healthwashing when it comes to food, by establishing an adequate labelling framework and strengthening the protection of consumer rights. To this end, the use of technology such as blockchain may be a helpful tool to improve transparency and traceability;
- Prioritise public health concerns, such as the excessive use of antibiotics in animal farming or of allergens in processed foods;
- Address issues related to food security, food deserts, and inequalities in food distribution; and;
- Improve international cooperation in achieving sustainable and healthy food systems.
We can only hope that the future of food will push us towards a more globally available and advanced future health and a less environmentally harmful food chain. If, as is commonly said, “you are what you eat”, hopefully in the future we, and our food, will be healthy and sustainable.