When you imagine the future of food, it’s easy to envision a world of driverless tractors, vertical urban gardens, and genetically modified organisms. Or perhaps you’ve already purchased a lifetime supply of Soylent, and you believe a mild-flavored beverage can end hunger across the planet. With the rapid rate at which technology is changing the status quo, sometimes it seems anything is possible.
Advances in technology, health, and data solutions were certainly on the docket at the Future of Food Summit last week, but the conversation focused less on far-out futuristic solutions and more on the basics of sustainable and affordable nutrition. The conference, hosted by the Diplomatic Courier and Mars, Incorporated, convened key opinion leaders and relevant stakeholders in Washington, D.C, who highlighted how backyard gardens, women’s empowerment, and quality sleep will affect the future of food and human health. By the end of the summit, one thing was clear: solving the world’s food challenges is not just about fertilizing fields and increasing crop yields, but is a complex issue with stakeholders in every sector, industry, and geography.
In his keynote address, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse from Rhode Island spoke about the grave health challenges facing the United States. “If we don’t get our healthcare costs under control,” said Whitehouse, “our best hope is that climate change gets us.” Whitehouse, of course, was joking. But his statement shows just how connected these issues are.
Affordable nutrition and healthier lifestyles are a simple formula, but even the United States is getting it all wrong. America spends nearly $2.9 trillion a year, or 17 percent of GDP, on healthcare, more than any other industrialized nation. According to the Center for Disease Control, the vast majority—66 percent—is spent on treating chronic non-communicable diseases like heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and dementia in people over 65. Those numbers are only likely to increase as the life expectancy rises, thanks to the effects of modern medicine.
If more people had access to affordable, nutritious food, and embraced healthier lifestyles, healthcare costs would fall. Calling for greater emphasis on preventative healthcare and nutritional education, Whitehouse said, “The future of food is very much entwined with the future of our bloated healthcare spending.”
Food is also closely linked to the negative environmental effects of carbon emissions. Rising temperatures due to greenhouse gases are causing ecosystem shifts that are undermining food production around the world. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has reported that the effects of carbon pollution impose a major threat to food security worldwide. In the Pacific Northwest, ocean acidification triggered by an increase in carbon dioxide is killing clams and oysters, negatively affecting the costal economies of Washington and Oregon. Recent studies indicate coastal communities relying on the clam and oyster industry in 15 states are at long-term economic risk. Calling for more rapid adoption of sustainable practices in the food industry, Whitehouse lauded companies like Mars that are actively working to address these growing challenges. In Indonesia, Mars is helping to bolster the ocean-based food system, rehabilitating coral reefs to reestablish native fish populations. When 50 percent of the world’s population relies on fish as a significant source of protein, interventions like these are critical to future food security.
But right now, Whitehouse argued, the United States is hamstrung by so-called “industry incumbents” who use their political influence to stymie action on climate change. “For instance, debating still the science of climate change, that has long settled in any reasonable persons view,” he said. “There is a very powerful effort right now to degrade real science and to create parallel alternative science that is industry friendly.”
While Whitehouse focused on the health challenges facing the United States, the interconnected issues of food, health, and environment are global. In China, nearly a fifth of the farmland is dangerously polluted. In India, aggressive progress in addressing poverty and hunger over the past decade has reduced malnutrition. But now, the country is grappling with other serious nutrition-related public health issues like obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
Increasing access to food will not solve malnutrition. “The problem is not about having enough food to eat,” said Prabhu Pingali, Founding Director of the Tata-Cornell Agriculture and Nutrition Initiative (TCi), “it is about having the right food to eat.” People need a diverse diet, micronutrients, and clean drinking water and sanitation as well. TCi has tried to address these issues through a long-term research program focused on poverty, malnutrition, and rural development in India.
Their research has explored the implications of how rural households distribute food. Even when a household can afford it, women and girls often eat last, less, or sometimes not at all. As a result, females are at higher risk of malnutrition, which can negatively impact the development of young girls. Having access to a diverse, nutrient-rich diet is also important for healthy pregnancies and breastfeeding.
Recognizing the need to engage mothers and grandmothers to change habits in household nutrition, TCi places a special emphasis on women’s self-help groups (SHGs) in rural India. SHG’s, which are becoming more prevalent throughout rural India, were initially developed to promote microcredit. Today, many have evolved into community governance and development institutions that enable women to be key influencers in fostering community resilience. In a village in eastern India, the NGO PRADAN worked with a SHG in the community to improve the supply of clean drinking water. The women in the community participated in the program’s implementation, eventually taking over once the water system was installed. Today, the system not only provides clean drinking water to households, but also is integral to increasing crop yields.
“Local communities need to organize themselves to make change happen,” Pingali said. “What we as outsiders can do is provide the different components necessary to make that happen.” He noted that NGOs are often very good at empowering local communities, but they struggle to harness the potential power of the private sector. This led to a discussion about the ways the private sector can help expand food diversity and support nutrition education, particularly for the world’s poor.
For years, IBM has recognized the unique potential of their advanced technology to help solve complex global challenges. One issue that continues to puzzle experts is the threat of food borne illness, which affects nearly every industry and geography across the globe. The IBM Consortium for Sequencing the Food Supply Chain is a large-scale experiment between IBM and Mars, Inc. that is working to address this issue. “When you talk about technology solutions,” said Jeff Welser, Vice President of Research at IBM, who leads the research initiative, “getting the human element integrated from the very beginning is critical.” This is why IBM has opened local labs in a number of locations to aid in this research. By harvesting and sequencing the DNA and RNA of simple food samples to determine where mutations occur, the initiative aims to eventually produce a gold standard for food and health officials globally to understand the cause of food contamination and to help prevent the spread of disease.
Another uncommon collaboration is the partnership between Mars and the University of California Davis. The team has produced research on innovations in food, agriculture, and health for more than four decades. Recognizing the burgeoning need for Silicon Valley-type breakthroughs in nutrition and agriculture, the partnership launched the Innovation Institute for Food and Health in early 2015. The institute will take a multidisciplinary and multifunctional approach to food, agriculture, and health research.
This month, The World Expo in Milan opens Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life, a global showcase for the exchange of ideas and shared solutions on food. In September, the United Nations will finalize a new agenda for development, the Sustainable Development Goals. As these two initiatives look at how to feed our growing planet, let’s hope special emphasis is placed on the nexus of food, health, and the environment. Advanced technology, policymaking, and development initiatives cannot exist in a vacuum if we are to ensure nutritious, safe, and sustainable food for everyone. Feeding—and nourishing—the 9.6 billion people projected to exist on earth by 2050 will require further cross-sector dialogue and collaboration, and more innovation than simply increasing the caloric output of the world’s agricultural supply chain.
Melissa Mattoon is the Design and Publication Manager at the New Global Citizen where she seeks to showcase the impact of innovative leadership and global engagement around the world. She is also the Communications Coordinator at PYXERA Global.