This week the 2011 Institute of Food Technologists holds its annual meeting and food expo in New Orleans and a top-level topic for the event is a discussion of the need to feed 9 billion people by 2050. The group notes that this will take a "sustainable food system" that makes the most of limited resources while protecting the world's fragile ecosystem.
"What we do in the next 10 years will set the stage for the next 50 years," says Andrew Henderson, professor and area director, Center for Agriculture and Rural Sustainability at the University of Arkansas.
Food technologists are learning that the key challenges to a sustainable world food system include:
Limited land availability
Uncertain supply/dependence on energy
"We are going to have to produce 50 to 100% more fuel, food and fiber from the same land over the next 50 years. We need to do this while preserving the world's biodiversity. If not our very system of being will be endangered," warns Henderson.
Jennifer Wilkins, Ph.D., Division of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell University, says "a whole diet approach" to sustainability looks at how much land is required to produce food based on different dietary scenarios. Communities, she said, consider their "foodprint" – the amount of land required to support one person on a specific diet in a specific geographic region for one year. Local food systems, said Wilkins, are more economically viable, requiring less transportation and energy.
She says a sustainable food system considers which foods are essential, which foods are luxuries, and how food is transported, processed and packaged. She adds that vegetarian diets and those with limited meat and dairy, can feed the most people.
Speaking out for science
Also part of the IFT meeting was a panel discussion that explored the need for the food industry to tackle the complicated question regarding the image of food science in the marketplace. Journalist Michael Specter, a New Yorker staff writer who has frequently focused on issues of science and public health, noted U.S. consumers' mounting mistrust of science. He notes that anti-science attitudes are dangerous, which has led to a wide-ranging, although unsubstantiated, mistrust of genetically modified foods.
During the presentation speakers made it clear that the public needs to understand and accept that all scientific progress comes with associated risks, but Specter notes that society has become increasingly risk averse, with greater acceptance of "precautionary principles." That suggests "we should not engage in any sort of activity unless we have mapped out all possible risks," he notes. He adds that such an approach makes it impossible for society to advance and progress. With this attitude, there would have been "no x-rays, no antibiotics, no green revolution."
The challenge of feeding 9 billion by 2050 taken along with the discussion of consumer risk aversion to science creates a bigger challenge moving forward. These are issues farmers, food technologists and others in the food production chain will face going forward.