From GMOs to petri dishes, what’s in store for the future of food?

From GMOs to petri dishes, what’s in store for the future of food?

Food photo by Subbotina Anna via Shutterstock

As we look into 2014 and beyond, the real and enormous challenges facing our planet around food still remain. It is evident — food supply chains are broken. Non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in farm animals is higher than ever. Chickens grown and slaughtered in the U.S. are being shipped to China for processing and back to the U.S. for consumption. Nearly 40 percent of all food worth $165 billion a year in the U.S. is being wasted [PDF] from farm to fork to landfill. Major crises prevail around animal well-being and farm worker rights.

From a demand standpoint, the world's population is projected to grow from about 7 billion in 2012 to 9.6 billion people in 2050. More than half of this growth will occur in sub-Saharan Africa, a region where one-quarter of the population is undernourished.

And it has become abundantly clear that it is not a food redistribution problem — even if we took all the food produced in 2009 and distributed it evenly among the global population, the world still will need to produce 974 more calories per person per day by 2050.

Where then can we pin our hopes on creating sustainable food systems for our future? I would like to place my bets for 2014 on the following three themes — innovation, collaboration and consumer engagement.

1. Innovation: 2013 saw a surge in the debate on GMOs coupled with exciting innovations at the nexus of food and technology. To GMO or Not to GMO requires an in-depth knowledge of the science, and opinions differ based on the types of plants, so I will allow you to draw your own conclusions. Notably, in 2013, Whole Foods took an assertive stance on full GMO labeling transparency. More recently, General Mills made an announcement around making one of its Cheerios brands GMO free

While this discussion rages on, in a parallel universe, Bay Area startups focused on alternate sources of protein from insects (ChirpFarms) to plants (Hampton Creek, Beyond Meat) attracted significant media attention and venture capital investment from the likes of Kleiner Perkins and Khosla Ventures. Their promise is to feed the planet on a much smaller footprint by staying away from animal proteins and factory farming for meat production.

Regardless whether you believe GMOs or lab foods to be part of the solution, these developments around food, technology and science are formidable and exciting.

2. Collaboration: Food production and distribution is perhaps one of the most complex supply chains in the world. If you didn't know that a single Big Mac patty is made from beef sourced from multiple cuts of beef, from different farms and even different countries, then it is time to wake up.

Industry-level collaboration addressing food supply chain challenges is not new; what is new is the depth of collaboration and the targets being set. McDonald's has been in the news recently for announcing its vision to "buy verifiable, sustainable beef in the future for all of our beef." While critics will point that no target date is in sight, it is important to acknowledge this aspirational goal as a step in the right direction. Learn more on the challenge ahead of McDonald's and how collaboration might provide the pathway to a solution.

My experience with collaborations is that they are tricky and it's easy to get them wrong. But creating and driving change through powerful inter- and cross-industry collaborations with committed leaders is crucial in our quest for sustainable food systems.

3. Consumer engagement: Engaging and not simply educating consumers is perhaps the most important — albeit the most challenging — piece of this puzzle. In a demand-driven economy, nudging consumers to act and think in a way that is not only in their best interests, but also that of our planet, is not easy. 

In the McDonald's example, for example, there are important questions to ask. For instance, how can we reduce our dependence on beef or meat in general? And what role might McDonald's play in influencing consumers to change their needs around meat — by offering, for example, a real taste-quality-nutritional counterpart in a veggie burger?

One specific area where consumer engagement is improving is around the demand for transparency in food supply chains. A number of technologies that have emerged to increase transparency across the supply chain are primarily focused on food waste. From restaurant waste tracking to the controversial leftover swapping, new and notable ideas are attempting to engage and simplify consumer participation around addressing food waste.

While other specific and general trends will evolve and emerge in 2014, I will keep my eye on the themes above. In the new year, they should make the biggest impact while driving the change required to influence both providers and consumers to find common ground.

Food photo by Subbotina Anna via Shutterstock