The Future of Food: Food Production, Innovation, and Technology

Foreword: Visiting ‘The Future of Food’ on a Global Stage: EXPO Milano 2015

By Kimberly Reed

We celebrated the May 1 opening of Expo Milano 2015, and from May through October, we will join millions of others who will be descending on Milan, Italy to discuss the theme of “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life.” The IFIC Foundation is committed to bringing this discussion to a broader audience, including our Food Insight readers. As part of this effort, IFIC Foundation President & CEO David B. Schmidt and Executive Director Kimberly Reed wrote the cover article for the May/June 2015 issue of the Diplomatic Courier: A Global Affairs Magazine entitled, “The Future of Food:  Food Production, Innovation, and Technology.” We are pleased to share an excerpt of this article with you below. We encourage you to read the full article online and to check for updates in this issue, as well as future issues of Food Insight, on IFIC Foundation and other planned activities in Italy during this historic EXPO focused on food!

Click here to read more about the Expo Milano Global Summit


The Future of Food: Food Production, Innovation, and Technology
By David B. Schmidt and Kimberly Reed, Guest Contributors

Excerpt taken from an article of the same name appearing in the May/June 2015 issue of Diplomatic Courier: A Global Affairs Magazine.

For the next six months (May 1 to October 15, 2015), the world will be focused on a very important topic: “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life.”  This is the theme of Expo Milano 2015 (also known as the “World’s Fair”), which is taking place in Milan, Italy, and will be the world’s largest, most historical gathering on food. More than twenty million visitors will visit Expo and hundreds of millions more will be involved in food-related in-person and virtual conversations around the world. This will be an important time for each of us–including children, parents, and teachers, as well as world leaders and influential stakeholders–to share our expertise and points-of-view as we come together to listen, learn, grow, and develop important solutions.  

Currently, there are 145 official country participants representing 94% of the world’s population. Building on its central theme, Expo 2015 notes that “every participating country has been charged with questioning and offering solutions to the major challenges related to the future of food, and each will provide those answers by drawing upon its own culture and traditions.” 

The theme of each of the country pavilions highlights the wonderful diversity of our planet. From A to Z–Afghanistan to Zimbabwe–we will learn about topics such as rice (Cambodia), cocoa (Ghana), coffee (Ethiopia), cereals and tubers (Togo), food security and sustainability (Senegal), food sovereignty (Cuba), and water and lotus (Vietnam), to name just a few. 

The USA Pavilion, “American Food 2.0: United to Feed the Planet,” will “highlight American industry, products, and entrepreneurship within the contexts of sustainability, nutrition and health, technology, and innovation.” In March 2014, U.S. President Barack Obama stated: “We’re going to put together an outstanding USA pavilion that showcases American innovation to improve agriculture and nutrition and the health of people around the globe.”

As we consider what innovation is needed to improve our global agriculture, nutrition, and health and fulfill Expo’s “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life” challenge, we also must consider a very important demographic change. Between now and 2050, the world’s population will increase from 7.2 billion today to 9.6 billion in 2050. This will require a 70% increase in food production, without additional land or natural resources to do so.

From farm to table, much about food production has changed over the past decades–for both farmers and consumers. Like any other business, farmers must adapt to a changing world.  Today, we know that each U.S. farmer feeds more people worldwide than ever before, at 155 people per farmer. In 1960, that number was 25.8 people. By 2050, the same farmer will need to feed 232 people.  

With finite resources, it will take innovation and a variety of technologies to meet the world’s food demand. This includes using new technologies. At every step of the journey from farm to fork, technology is helping us produce a safe, abundant, sustainable, and nutritious food supply. Precision agriculture, with the aid of GPS satellites, can target individual crop treatments to the smallest plots of soil, which reduces environmental impacts. Advances in livestock production, from climate control to the nutritional qualities of feed, have improved animal health and welfare, and boosted agricultural output. Refrigeration and modern packaging technologies increase the safety of our food, the distance across which it can be transported, and its extended freshness.

Among the most successful and still more promising advances is food and agricultural biotechnology, which includes a range of benefits for the food supply through various breeding and other techniques. At its heart, food biotechnology is the science of employing the tools of modern genetics to enhance beneficial traits of plants, animals, and their food components.

Dr. Lowell Catlett, Dean and Chief Administrative Officer, College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, New Mexico State University, stated: “The United States has become a global provider for food only because we have employed technology to make us far more productive so that we can produce more calories than we can consume, so that we can help feed a hungry world, and the only way we have done that is with technology … [W]e have got to invest more in technology than ever to make sure that we can feed that … nine [billion people].  The resource base says we can do it, but we cannot do it without technology.”

Food biotechnology can help feed our growing planet, while also bringing several additional benefits along the way. Not only do insect-protected and virus-resistant biotech crop varieties produce hardier plants, leading to higher yields, but plants are also being engineered to grow in places where they would not survive before.

Biotech crops can also aid in protecting the environment by producing herbicide-tolerant varieties, thereby decreasing the amount of pesticides used in farming. Decreasing pesticide use can have a positive impact on the health and well-being of wildlife, decrease farmers’ exposure to pesticides, and contribute to a cleaner water supply.

And, with biotechnology, the food itself can be more healthful and nutritious, as crops with enhanced nutritional traits make their way to the supermarket. These foods can help to combat chronic diseases by providing more healthful compounds, including higher levels of antioxidants and vitamins, and lower amounts of fats we should limit. Scientists have also begun to target allergy-causing proteins.

Dr. Robert Thompson, former Dean of Agriculture at Purdue University and U.S. government and World Bank official, who is currently a visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, raises an important, and, unfortunately, too often overlooked technology-related topic when it comes to “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life”: malnutrition.

Thompson estimated that there are more than two billion people in the world who are anemic, and several hundred million people suffer from blindness as a result of vitamin A deficiency. “Perhaps the saddest of all is iodine deficiency in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia, where iodine supplementation is not a common practice. (We have it in the form of iodized salt in the U.S.) Iodine deficiency in the diets of expectant mothers and children under two years of age can cause irreversible stunting in both physical and mental development.  That’s a tragic consequence for society as a whole.”

Thompson predicts: “It is possible to enhance the nutritional content of staple foods using advanced research tools such as genetic engineering, a technique that virtually every scientific authority in the world has looked at and concluded is not dangerous for human health or the environment. 

To read the full article in the Diplomatic Courier, click here.