Spill the Beans

Future of Food

“Rising food prices”, “land grabs”, “inequality”and “climate change”…. all this talk seems to forecast a dark and daunting future threatening the security of our food. Though we see it printed in the newspapers, hear it in the media, and watch politicians talk about formulating policies for protecting us from famine, it almost seems like fiction. “Famine” – something so far away, written in books rather than reality. Though, we’ve seen these elements do their part in the past: starting with the 8 year yellow-haze known as the Dust Bowl that dried the southern fields or the Great Irish Potato Famine, some suggest that if we continue business-as-usual, the future famine will hit us harder and bigger than ever before. Here, we’ll take a look at some of the suggested hypothesis of what the future holds and explore what can be done to change this prophecy. 

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Dust Bowl farm in the Coldwater District, north of Dalhart, Texas, June 1938. From Dorothea Lange/Farm Security Administration via Library of Congress

Why should we be interested in the future of food?

Food nourishes us, connects us, and defines us. It does more than merely keeping us alive. It plays a central role in connecting us to our heritage, the land and each other. In this rapidly changing environment, it is critical to understand how food has made us who we are, and how it will shape our future.

Talking about feeding the future, it is inevitable to touch on the growing population, the environment and food systems.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the World Health Organization estimates the world population to grow to 9.7 billion by the year 2050 (2017, FAO). In the face of climate change, how are we going to meet the needs of an expanding population? With growing cities and expanding infrastructure, arable (or cultivatable) land is reduced with more mouths to feed. What can be done to ensure that sustainability is central to our future food system and build resiliency to withstand the challenges of global warming?

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What does this mean for health?

Chronic hunger, under-nutrition, micronutrient deficiencies, and obesity. The burdens of food insecurity in today’s society are complicated by a food system where highly processed, convenience foods are more available and affordable than their counterparts. It is orchestrates poverty: we know that nutrition is needed for good physical and cognitive growth and development for children; without adequate access to adequate quality food, the future of tomorrow may never reach their full potential. We know good physical health is required for productivity and hence global economic health… Starting to get a picture of this intricate web of our food system now?

How do we avoid the bleak future?

There are a couple of suggestions of what can be done to curb this dark fate.

Some think that technology is the key. Food availability and access boomed after the industrial revolution when machinery allowed farmers to more efficiently work the land. Food waste was reduced with the introduction of domestic refrigerators in the early 1900’s (though there is still much work to be done, as the FAO estimates 1/3 of the food produced never gets consumed). More efficient transportation allowed not only for us to migrate into cities and still have access to food but also led to globalization of our taste palates. No doubt that technology is a major player in the food system and our equation of food in the future. However, these advancements do not address the root causes of food insecurity, nutrition equity or distribution.

Well, wait a minute – if temperatures are to get warmer, what does that mean for Canada? Will we have longer growing seasons and more so-called “agricultural frontiers”? It is important to take these temperature projection speculations with caution. Before we get all excited, we need to ask two key questions: how much food could this new ‘agricultural frontier’ produce,  and at what environmental and social cost. According to a presentation by Dr. Evan Fraser, from the Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph, estimations sum to a 2% increase per year in wheat and corn yields. All at the cost of 126 gigatons of carbon from cultivating these new frontier soils, that is equivalent to 8 decades of US carbon emissions… not to mention the loss of wildlife habitat from land clearing and the effects on indigenous communities. Though there may be some opportunities for Canadian agriculture, we must not lose sight of the bigger picture – sustainability. Not to mention our most Northern communities, and how the warmer climates would affect their way of life. Challenges have already begun to present itself in earlier breaking of ice which makes it less safe to practice traditional hunting methods, and temperatures are projected to become much warmer.

What about farmer resiliency? First hand, I got to see Cuba and their incredible methods of adaptation to meet their nation’s food needs with the US Embargo limiting their fertilizers and inputs. They had to be innovative in how they worked the land to produce sufficient yields without conventional inputs: resorting to crop rotation to conserve soil health, having silvo-pastoral (trees with animals) systems to have an ongoing source of fertilizer to feed the crops, selecting legume plants to fix nitrogen back into the soil and incorporating crops that also feed the animals for a closed-loop sustainable system within the farm. Every day, farmers make decisions; in the face of climate crisis, if given enough warning, they have much potential to adapt to the changing environment and still reap sufficient yields.

Power of Pulses 

One of possible major players in a more secure food future is the role of policies in creating opportunities for low-input foods. Low vs High input foods refers to the amount of energy, intensive irrigation, fertilizers and pesticide use required to produce a food. Another way to think of it is the amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced per unit of final product (kg carbon dioxide/ kg of final product). Any guesses to the difference between ruminants and other protein sources?

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Ripple, et al. (2013)

We know that ruminants require more pastured land for grazing, and require us to produce food that could otherwise be for our consumption for feed. Having less of these foods would be like cutting out the middle-man: less input required, less green house gas emissions (especially the potent methane gas produced by ruminants) and more food for us!

So is the answer to a more secure future for everyone to go for beans and beef-free? Not exactly, it is much more complex than that. We need to approach things with a holistic, multi-pronged approach. If you ask your friends and family to pass off the steak and go for for a soy-protein veggie burger or a legume-based entree instead, how many times out of 10 would they agree? Likely not that often. It’s not really realistic to just ask consumers to give-up beef. And that’s not what is being said, but instead reducing the quantity and frequency of purchasing these high input foods. So this is when climate change policy such as carbon pricing has a role to play. Researchers estimate that a $30/t price on carbon would increase ground beef retail prices by 10% (Fraser, 2017). From looking at sugar-sweetened beverage taxes, we know that the price of food is effective in shifting eating patterns. In general, consumers are quick to respond to market prices.

From the Consumer’s Perspective

But what about consumer acceptability, you ask? Take sushi for instance. When it was first brought to the Americas, the thought of eating raw fish was absolutely absurd, even to the most adventurous eaters. Now, there’s a sushi joint nearly on every corner in metro Vancouver. Consumer tastes and trends are adaptable.

Not only is the current trend to choose high input proteins, but also in much larger than suggested portion sizes. Recall the last filet of steak you had when eating out whilst looking at your hand … how big was the steak? To illustrate, suggested protein portions at each meal is about the size of the palm of your hand.

“In order to promote sustainability and nutrition, we must boost resilience amongst both producers and consumers.” – Evan Fraser

 

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Challenge you to an adventurous World Meat-Free Day!

How will we feed a world of 9 plus billion? There is a role for all of us to play in shaping the future landscape of our food system. Policy-makers need to find innovative ways to promote healthier living for the people and the world and begin to do so by considering powerful economic tactics such as carbon taxing to shift food trends and choices. Dietitians are called upon to empower and educate the consumers on these low-input proteins such as pulses and legumes: educating them on ways to incorporate and prepare these foods, and to improve food and health literacy. Consumers nearly the biggest player, have the power to shift demand by choosing more of these low-input nutritionally dense proteins often. Go ahead, expand your taste horizons! A small effort to experiment with low-input proteins more often translates to a leap in food culture shift.

Three bean Southern chili, curried pea or Tuscan lentil soup, baked bean tacos, roasted garlic hummus, black bean burgers, Mapo Szechuan peppercorn spiced tofu … what’s it gonna bean tonight?

 

 

Citations

  1. Is the Future Secure? The impact of changing climate and economics on food system sustainability and food security in Canada and abroad [Webinar]. (2017, May 25). Retrieved May 25, 2017, from Nutrition Resource Centre, presented by Dr.Evan Fraser.
  2. Ripple, W. J., Smith, P., Haberl, H., Montzka, S. A., McAlpine, C., & Boucher, D. H. (213, December 20). Nature, 4, 2-5: Ruminants, climate change and climate policy. Retrieved June 12, 2017, from doi:10.1038/nclimate2081
  3. The future of food and agriculture: Trends and challenges (pp. 1-52, Report Summary). (2017). FAO. http://www.fao.org/3/a-i6881e.pdf.
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