Mending the Agrifood Industry: Our Journey With Food From Past to Future
What is the agrifood industry?
The food and agriculture industry, also known as the agrifood industry, includes all activities that engage with food production, including farming, food retail, food science, restaurants, food transportation, and more. The agrifood industry is an integral part of the global economy and effects every person on the planet. Agriculture takes up one-third of the land on earth, employs about 40 percent of the world population, and, as of 2019, the global agrifood sector is worth nearly US$9 trillion.
Due to its massive size, worth, and impact on the health of humans and the environment, the agrifood industry is increasingly complex. Today, as over 840 million people suffer from undernourishment and obesity rates continue to rise, it is evident that there are many challenges threatening the future of the food system. Land degradation, water depletion, pollution, unbalanced nutrient cycles, greenhouse gas emissions, and shrinking biodiversity are additional environmental aspects that are threatened by modern agriculture.
Fortunately, with these challenges and problems come opportunities for innovation and change. The global community has taken notice of the huge issues in the agrifood industry and are working to create change that protects the planet and its people.
How did we get here?
Food and agriculture are constantly evolving to feed growing populations. The Industrial Revolution of the 18th century replaced manpower with machine power and permitted long-distance food trade. The 20th century saw rapid progress and growth within the agrifood sector. Planting and harvesting crops became mechanised, selective breeding became the norm for both crops and livestock, and advances in medicine prevented diseases that normally threatened farm life. These developments allowed for increased scale of production which drove down the costs of commodity food products such as grains, sugar, and cattle. Fast food chains and the snack industry utilised these low prices, along with new preservation technologies, to produce and sell more processed food products than ever before.
Despite a 150 percent increase in crop yields, the amount of global farmland has declined in the last 40 years and the planet has lost 50 percent of essential topsoil. Without topsoil, key nutrients are lost and land is susceptible to erosion, which further deteriorates the quality of arable farmland. In the late 20th century, scientists began understanding the greenhouse effect and the sources of greenhouse gases. Studies revealed 26 percent of all human-produced greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture and eight percent from food waste. Government bodies took note of the environmental issues at hand and began to take action. While agrifood systems vary from region to region, the overall issue remained the same: the food system needed to change.
In 1992, the United Nations signed the Framework Convention on Climate Change. This document was a written acknowledgment by 150 nations that climate change was a problem for humans and food production. The Kyoto Protocol, the first treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, was adopted in 1997. In 2015, nations came together to recognise the errors of the past and agree to make decisions to lead a more sustainable future. The Paris Agreement outlined a plan for nations to build a low-carbon, climate resilient, and sustainable future.
Today, people are increasingly concerned about the future and have the power to make demands from food and agriculture businesses to change for the better. Movements around organic, fair trade, localism, plant-based diets, farmer’s markets, and plant-based milk and meat alternatives are just some ways that people are now interested in bettering the agrifood sector. According to a study by Ipsos MORI, the number of people who eat plant-based diets in the UK has more than tripled in the last 10 years.
In business, Sky Greens in Singapore grows vegetables in vertical farm systems which allows 10 times more yield than traditional farm plots. Programs like the UK Plastic Pact has encouraged food corporations like Unilever and Coca-Cola to eliminate single-use plastic packaging by 2025 and increase the use of recycled or compostable plastics. Many persistent organic pollutants (POPs) found in plastic materials can harm both animal populations who consume them, as well as humans who then consume those animals. Reducing the use and production of plastic will help prevent the accumulation of POPs in water systems, thereby protecting animal and human health in the future.
Some meat companies are removing animal ingredients, and the greenhouse gases that come from them, from their recipes and replacing them with clean meat and plant-based alternatives. These companies are getting more support from investors and the public, with Mosa Meat in Europe raising US$8.8 million for their clean meat product, while US-based Memphis Meats has attracted US$17 million of investment.
The Future of Agrifood
While the agrifood sector has created many problems, it also holds the solutions. There will not be one answer to fix global malnutrition, obesity, soil degradation, water scarcity, and food distribution. Instead, the answer will require small actions from a large number of people around the world. Farmers, government officials, private corporations, chefs, educators, and individuals alike will need to change their habits to create a better agrifood system. A report by the Royal Society on science and agriculture asserts, “Global agriculture demands a diversity of approaches, specific to crops, localities, cultures and other circumstances. Such diversity demands that the breadth of relevant scientific enquiry is equally diverse, and that science needs to be combined with social, economic and political perspectives.”
One of the greatest aids to feed the projected 9 billion people on the planet by 2050 will be technology. Artificial intelligence, advances in crop breeding, new research for extreme climate farming, food science for clean meat, and vertical farming are just some of the ways technology is already beginning to build a better agrifood system. For individuals who don’t work directly in food systems, supporting good food policies and businesses that practice sustainable agriculture are other ways to help improve the agrifood industry.
Looking forward, the future of agrifood is bright with possibilities and people who are ready and eager to improve the food system. What are some ways you can get involved in building a better agrifood system? Share your expert opinion in our new exclusive group for Food Research & Development experts here!
This article was written by a member of The Food Tank.