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How To Prepare Our Failing Food System For The Future

The recent rise in food prices is just the first warning sign that the way we produce food may not be working so well. There are some important changes that need to be made to continue to feed a growing population.

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Your local grocery store may be stocked with foods from around the world, but make no mistake: Our food system is starting to fail. Resource constraints, unpredictable weather, increases in food-borne illnesses, and malnutrition (925 million people are malnourished while one billion are chronically obese) are all making the major food corporations rethink the way they do business.

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A new Sodexo and Nestle-sponsored report from sustainable innovation company SustainAbility aims to outline the problems and how we might begin to rethink a future food system. The major food corporations know that they need to change. “We didn’t expect industry to come up with a such a low grade of itself.” says Jennifer Biringer, director at SustainAbility. “There’s such a disconnect between how corporations are adjusting to food security and industry
issues … versus entrepreneurs
and governments that are calling for a radical new ecological approach. Companies like Unilever and Nestle rated themselves between a four and six out of ten.”

SustainAbility’s report focuses on four areas: The first is using a reasonable amount of food resources. “I think companies will be judged on their sensitivity to local food security concerns,” says Biringer. That means a Western company sourcing rice for cereal from a place like Southeast Asia (where malnutrition rates are high) will be condemned. Companies will, in other words, have to focus on using their fair share of resources.

At the same time, companies need to work on eliminating waste. We can already see companies starting to “close the loop”–Walmart, for example, already has a comprehensive zero-waste initiative. “Part of the question is how you achieve it,” says Biringer.

Information technology will also become an increasingly important piece of a better food system. For example, Tata’s Innovation Lab offers farmers customized advice on how to protect crops based on GPS and Google Earth data. The Lab offers information about soil, weather, pest management, and more.

Finally, SustainAbility believes that companies have to start meeting societal needs. “The current food system was geared to address things like efficiency and
convenience, but it’s not meeting current needs in terms of nutrition and equity, ” explains Biringer. In order to address these needs, corporations will have to focus on increasing accessibility to nutritious food, pay attention to resource constraints, and consider climatic impacts on agriculture.

These are tall orders for a system that has been entrenched for many decades and which continues to make loads of cash, but the fact that companies like Nestle and Sodexo are at least interested in new strategies is a good sign. “They see the writing on the wall that it’s the end of how we’re doing business currently and there’s a need for new ideas on the table,” says Biringer.

[Image: Flickr user Jack Berry]

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Reach Ariel Schwartz via Twitter or email.

Read More: Redesigning Food Trucks

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.

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