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Utopia? Imagining the food system of 2050

What’s implausible in 2020 may be plausible by mid-century.


This article was adapted from the GreenBiz Food Weekly newsletter. Sign up here to receive your own free subscription.

Over the past few days, I had the pleasure of thinking not about our immediate uncertain future but about the world three decades from now. 

In October, the Rockefeller Foundation invited organizations to submit a vision for a "regenerative and nourishing food system that they aspire to create by the year 2050." From more than 1,300 submissions, the foundation chose 79 semi-finalists. Each is refining their vision ahead of the next cut in August, when 10 finalists will be selected for mentorship and a possible prize of $200,000.

When I started looking through the semi-finalists, I found myself questioning the utopian vibe of many of the visions. Then I reminded myself: That’s the point. An enormous amount can and will change between now and 2050. What’s implausible in 2020 may be plausible by mid-century.

Here are four semi-finalists that grabbed my attention:

  • Can depleted soils in Africa and elsewhere be replenished by planting an unusually high density of diverse plant species? That’s the idea being explored by Sony Computer Science Laboratories, which is providing technology to monitor growth in the experimental plots, and Sweden Foodtech, an industry accelerator. Initial trials in Burkina Faso already have produced good results, according to the team.

  • I wrote recently about the need for more research into regenerative agriculture. Here’s one radical way of doing that: create a national network of hubs for scientific excellence in regenerative agriculture that eliminates the traditional division between academic studies and real-life expertise. "At these hubs, scientific staff must become practicing farmers, ranchers and beekeepers," wrote Jonathan Lundgren, the former U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist behind the proposal.  

  • Dramatically expanding agroforestry on the Massachusetts-New York border could create more resilient economies, ecosystems and food supply, argue the team at Regen Network, an agricultural economics organization. I like this proposal in part because it involves bringing back chestnut trees, an astonishing 4 billion of which blanketed the Atlantic seaboard before the beautiful species, nicknamed the "redwood of the east coast," fell victim to disease.

  • Many entries imagine a future featuring deeper connections between people, food and land. Executives at Finnish company Solar Foods have a very different vision. They want to use Morocco’s abundant sunshine to power direct air capture facilities that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and transform the gas into food protein. "We can turn the western Sahara into a flourishing food production hub," they wrote.

You can browse the full list of semi-finalist visions at the Food System Vision Prize website.

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