4 Possible Futures For The Global Food System

From a world where only the rich can afford nutritious food to hyper-local food production, what’s next?

4 Possible Futures For The Global Food System
[Photo: Michal G via Unsplash]

Somehow, despite the fact that the global food system produces so many calories that 2.1 billion people are overweight or obese, it also leaves 800 million people without enough to eat. The agriculture sector is responsible for 29% of greenhouse gas emissions, plus a host of environmental problems, from polluted waterways to deforestation. Food waste is an enormous problem. And, climate change threatens to reduce yields and deepen shortages, especially as the developing world gets a taste for Western-style diets and the global population reaches 9 billion-plus. The food system is, to put it lightly, a mess.


How can it change so more people are fed nutritiously and sustainably in the future? That’s the subject of a new report from Monitor Deloitte, the consulting firm, on behalf of the World Economic Forum.

[Photo: onlyyouqj/iStock]

“Shaping the Future of Global Food Systems” outlines four possible future scenarios based on current trends:

Survival Of The Richest

In the “survival of the richest” scenario, food consumption is resource-intensive, markets are disconnected, and there’s stark food inequality between calorie-rich countries and calorie-poor ones. This best describes our current situation, says Shay Eliaz, Deloitte’s strategy principal and one of the authors of the report.

unchecked consumption

In the second scenario, technological innovation produces ever more food, but at the expense of deepening existing environmental problems.

open-source sustainability

This more optimistic scenario sees governments embrace international trade, there’s more transparency in commodity markets, and we have greater consumer awareness of the side effects of food production.

local is the new global

And, in the final scenario, countries move toward self-sustainability and away from international trade. Environmental performance improves, but, as a whole, the global system fails to benefit from “comparative advantages” between countries (i.e. that it’s better to grow certain crops in certain places). As a result, those nations without the means to grow certain foods struggle and “hunger hotspots proliferate.”


Eliaz says the recent election has made him more pessimistic about the prospects for international cooperation in the global food system. Hence that’s why he thinks we’re in the “survival of the richest” scenario where it’s essentially every country for itself. “It’s not good for a large swath of the [global] population,” he says.

[Photo: Michal G via Unsplash]

He’s not worried about the world producing enough food in the future. As the developed world exports technology, like better seeds and refrigeration, to the emerging world, the latter will grow and store more food, filling in hunger gaps. The problem is that in exporting modern farming methods, we’ll also be exporting modern environmental problems. “How do we produce all this food in a way that doesn’t break what we have?” he asks.

The report calls for a “systemic transformation.” Companies should invest in “products and advertising that promote healthier diets,” improve transparency in international markets (to reduce the risk of supply shocks), pay workers living wages, and push forward with technology like the internet of things, gene editing, 3D printing, robotics, and big data, all of which could produce food more efficiently.

Meanwhile, governments can help consumers appreciate the “true costs of food systems”–for example, that meat consumption has a higher environmental footprint than eating plants. And “public subsidies could be redirected toward highly nutritious crops, lowering the price point of nutritious foods,” the report says. Currently, the federal government effectively subsidizes the junk food industry.

Above all, business, government, and consumers need to work together. “The challenge you have is that no single government or company can solve this by themselves,” Eliaz says. “Much of this needs to be solved in a multi-stakeholder partnership.”

Read more from the report here.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.