Skip to main content

Sustainable Futures

Retail Horizons: Food shopping in a water-scarce world

This article is the seventh in a 12-part series about the future of U.S. retail for the Forum for the Future-led 2014 Retail Horizons project in partnership with Retail Industry Leaders Association. For more about the project and the toolkit available in October, read the first story.

The future of food is both exciting and precarious. While technological advances promise changes in what and how we eat, the basic inputs required to make food for humans, such as water and fertile soil, have changed very little. Of these, changes in water availability could have the most drastic impact on the types of foods available to tomorrow's consumer.

Based on current estimates, fresh water will be in high demand. According to the UN, 20 percent of the world's population already lives in areas of water scarcity. By 2030, half the global population could face water scarcity with demand outstripping supply by 40 percent.

This is particularly relevant for food production because agriculture uses roughly 70 percent of consumptive freshwater globally. In the Western United States, where we produce much of our food, that number jumps to 90 percent.

Unless advances are made in desalination technology to make the process cheaper and less energy-intensive — or harsh legislative measures that impose restrictions are implemented — water will become scarcer and as a result, food more expensive.

This has numerous implications for families trying to put food on the table. Much has been written about "the Western diet" and its impact on our bodies and the environment. It is well known that red meat is energy-intensive, and many now advocate for a plant-based diet. According to a study on the water footprint of food (PDF), to produce 1 kilogram of beef requires an average of 15,500 liters of water, whereas 1 kilogram of cabbage requires 200 liters.

Yet despite these issues, environmentalists have found it difficult to get people to change their eating habits. According to Gallup, the number of vegetarians in the U.S. hardly has changed over the past 13 years. Meanwhile, global demand for meat has increased dramatically, with China now consuming a quarter of the world's supply.

Much like today, the consumer of 2030 will be concerned about purchasing food that is healthy, delicious and affordable. There are several ways in which food producers and manufacturers have been innovating in anticipation of future demand.

1. Innovation around synthetic foods. Hampton Creek, a start-up that developed a plant-based egg substitute, is 48 percent more cost effective than raising chickens for eggs. Beyond Meat, a company that produces a plant-based protein that mimics chicken, fooled the taste buds of a New York Times food critic. Plant-based substitutes could provide future consumers with familiar tastes and a lower environmental impact.

2. Change consumers' eating patterns to adopt new, more energy-efficient foods into their diets. One example is the U.N's push to eat insects. Insects are a good protein source and could combat world hunger. Additionally, food products such as Soylent, a low-cost nutritional shake, aim to replace food by providing a complete meal. While it is generally difficult to get consumers to change culturally ingrained eating patterns, it is possible. Cost and efficiency gains could be the tipping point.

3. Reimagining food entirely. The U.S. military is working on a patch that would deliver nutrients through the skin. Breathable Foods, a food technology company, recently launched an inhalable caffeine shot and breathable chocolate. These innovations from the edges of food technology highlight changes to the way we eat that may become more popular.

A world of water scarcity will require changes in how we interact with food, both as producers and consumers. Food waste, which currently includes 45 trillion gallons of water annually, must become a thing of the past, while greater investment almost certainly will be needed in developing drought-resistant crop strains. The specific innovations to tackle water scarcity are still emerging; but what is already clear is that for the future of food to be sustainable, we must be ready to adapt to ensure food is nutritious, low-carbon and affordable for all.

Image by MaIII Themd via Shutterstock.

More on this topic