Dr. Lesley Mitchell of Forum for the Future argues that a sustainable food industry is within reach if companies collaborate to create dynamic new systems
The sustainability spotlight is increasingly focused on the impact of our global food system. Businesses face diverse, conflicting demands from consumers and society. The question of their role in shaping a future-fit food system is more urgent than ever in the context of increasing demand, rapid urbanisation and ever-shrinking natural resources. Is all this concern for sustainable food just another flash in the pan, and if not, what should we do?
Our understanding of human impacts on the planet has grown to recognise the effects of how we produce and consume food – both for the environment and health. In this often polarised, agenda-driven space, future signals are clear. Agriculture accounts for around a third of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions; livestock production is around half that total. As populations and economies flourish, food demand will grow by up to 70% globally by 2050, if we don’t adjust our diets.
This impact isn’t evenly distributed. Demand for meat, fish and dairy will grow most in Asia and Africa, which face challenges of under-nutrition alongside increased levels of processed diets and over-consumption. Health metrics flag non-communicable diet-related diseases as the biggest future global health challenge, beyond tobacco or alcohol.
It's clear that integrating climate transformation into business models is vital
Controversially, the recent EAT-Lancet report called for drastic reductions in meat consumption and increased plant consumption on health grounds. The environmental message is also stark: business-as-usual growth in animal protein demand could swallow our entire remaining carbon budget to keep us under 1.5C warming by 2040. Yet the picture is dynamic – on the upside, global dairy production reduced emissions intensity by 11% in just 10 years.
But climate change is expected to reduce agricultural productivity globally by around 17% at the same time that we are seeking to increase production. UN estimates suggest we have fewer than 60 harvests left, as monoculture and productivity maximisation lead to soil degradation. The biodiversity that supports our agricultural systems, such as vital crop pollinators, is disappearing.
Financial forecasts for climate change impacts offer stark warnings for business – from Mark Carney at the Bank of England to global ratings agencies, it’s clear that integrating climate transformation into business models is vital. Others highlight risks specific to the food system. From the UN Principles for Responsible Investment, to international investor consultancies such as FAIRR, investor signals emphasise risks from wider sustainability parameters. Businesses are increasingly expected to deliver the Social Development Goals as the rationale for deep and rapid transformation is becoming both value and values led.
However, it’s not all doom. The rapidly shifting food system brings huge opportunities for transformation and disruption, and the future is dependent on how we act right now. So where do we start?
At Forum for the Future we’ve spent over 20 years partnering with companies on sustainable transformation. But some major systemic challenges require action across whole sectors. Let’s look at three areas where this approach has begun to reshape the future of food: protein, fats, and regenerative agriculture.
In 2015, Forum’s Futures Centre, alongside leading businesses, began seeing signals that protein was a hot topic. With leadership from pioneering businesses such as Volac and Waitrose, alongside NGO engagement, the Protein Challenge 2040 has become a dynamic international pre-competitive collaboration aiming to tackle the question: how do we provide 10 billion people with enough protein in a way that is healthy, affordable and good for the planet? Forum brings its futures and systems expertise, while the project’s multi-stakeholder leadership group works to drive change across the food system.
The Protein Challenge 2040 is about working together with other like-minded organisations to create real change
As Andy Richardson, director of public affairs at Volac, says: “The Protein Challenge 2040 is not about promoting personal beliefs or commercial interests but instead it is about working together with other like-minded organisations to create real change. In this way you better understand the market environment in which you operate and align your business to the future.”
So far, Protein Challenge 2040 has helped to shift the narrative from “good and bad” protein toward rebalancing protein consumption, whilst challenging leading chefs to innovate plant-protein menus. We’re now working with food-service and culinary colleges who train chefs to use diverse protein sources. In the US, we’ve brought together food manufacturers and school districts to develop a model for transformation of a challenging food-service system to deliver more plant-based protein in children’s diets.
We have also identified otherwise hidden challenges, including the role of animal feed in livestock sustainability, responsible for 45% of livestock GHG emissions, and a whopping 78% for poultry. There is significant potential for innovations such as algae and insect feeds. The resulting Feed Compass collaboration aims to enable the feed, livestock and food industry system to radically reshape itself, working with producers and retailers to design and use a framework to include sustainability in decision-making on feed.
The increased global attention to sustainable nutrition has driven the growth of diverse collaborations, partnerships, research and innovation, and the potential for disparate signals and confusion is clear. Looking forward, we are aligning with other initiatives to ensure we work together on common goals and play to each other’s strengths.
Protein is a major part of the sustainable nutrition puzzle, but two new collaborations aim to tackle the biggest challenges facing our food system in coming decades. Hardly anyone in food or the wider fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) sector will have escaped the reach of the palm oil debate. While potential implications for deforestation and habitat loss are clear, sustainable solutions are a slippery challenge. Take-up of sustainable palm oil is still low, while existing substitutes are often far less efficient and removing palm can cause dire unintended consequences for land use. Innovations such as oils from algae have exciting potential, but are under-explored. An international workshop in 2018 demonstrated the sector’s motivation to work together and the newly launched Edible Fats and Oils Collaboration aims to focus action.
However we feed the world, the warnings are that we have to act now to regenerate agriculture
Even deeper at the heart of sustainable nutrition are our food production systems. The green revolution was successful in increasing productivity, but externalised many costs – from loss of soil, to impacts of monoculture on biodiversity. However we feed the world, the warnings are that we have to act now to regenerate agriculture. Rebuilding soil health can act as a major carbon sink, enabling resilient food systems and restoring the natural resources we depend on. This requires collaborative systemic action to make regenerative production viable as the mainstream, and we’re working to build regenerative collaborations to accelerate its potential.
The picture is far from bleak. Business has a leading role to play in transforming the food system to be resilient, productive, viable and flourishing now and in future. Collaboration is key to meeting the scale and urgency of the challenge, and building a good future for food.
This article is part of the in-depth briefing Climate-smart agriculture. See also: