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5 radical visions for a 2050 food system

Stone Barns Center

At the Stone Barns Center in upstate New York, the team wants to build a Cold Storage Lab dedicated to extending the season for local crops.

Stone Barns Center

Just over a year ago, the Rockefeller Foundation put out a global call for proposals for radical reform of our food systems. More than 1,300 teams from 119 countries responded. The pile of submissions was whittled down to 79 semifinalists and then, last week, to 10 "bold ideas for tackling some of the world’s most pressing food systems challenges." Each winner was awarded $200,000 to pursue their vision for reform.

The winning proposals cover a dizzying range of locations and issues — from food sovereignty on a Native American reservation to plant-based diets in metropolitan Beijing. But as I read them, the commonalities seem as prominent as the differences. Embedded in the ideas is an emerging consensus on the critical ingredients for food system reform, regardless where it takes place. 

I encourage you to browse the final selection and see for yourself, but here’s my reading of that consensus:

Food systems must connect to local communities. There’s a stunning example of this need in the proposal from the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. The reservation occupies almost 2,000 square miles, yet has just three grocery stores. There are plenty of local farms, but most grow commodity crops such as soybeans. The result is a food desert surrounded by fertile land.

Technology is part of the solution. Agtech is often associated with highly efficient yet unsustainable practices, but the same tech can benefit sustainable approaches. In their vision of a holistic food system for the Netherlands, for example, Wageningen University researchers imagine farmers using drones to precisely target nutrient use. At the Stone Barns Center in upstate New York, the team wants to build a cold storage lab dedicated to extending the season for local crops.

It’s got to be regenerative. Almost every winner made it clear that regenerative agriculture is central to their vision. That was predictable given that the foundation sought proposals for a "regenerative and nourishing food future," but it nevertheless reflects the growing importance of regenerative ag in food policy. (And perhaps the waning importance of organic?)

From linear to circular. Circular processes — the transformation of crop residues into compost, for instance — are a common feature of food system reform. But the Wageningen team ups the ante with a rallying cry for circular agriculture, circular cooking and circular chefs: "By 2050," they write, "we have replaced the wasteful, linear model of our current food system with a circular one." Among other things, this includes limiting livestock to numbers that can be supported on food waste and food byproducts. Which brings us to...

Plant-based diets. No surprise to hear entrants from North American and Europe advocate for this: These are regions where a reduction in emissions from meat production is seen as an essential way to reduce the climate impact of food. Perhaps only because I know less about food debates elsewhere, I was interested to see entries from China and Nigeria that also placed alternative proteins at the heart of their visions. 

Before I sign off, I’ll mention one other, more controversial, commonality. Many visions are either explicitly or implicitly pitched in opposition to Big Ag. I see where this comes from: Chemical inputs and monocultures and livestock farming have undeniable negative impacts.

But Big Ag is more than that. It brings efficient land use, which prevents native ecosystems being converted to farmland, and sophisticated supply chains that provide year-round abundance at low prices. I don’t say this to gloss over the sector’s problems, but as we imagine a better system, we shouldn’t ignore the benefits of the current one.

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