“Food is the moral right of all who are born into this world.”– Norman Borlaug
Humanity is facing a daunting challenge that, if not addressed now, will rise to epic proportions. The challenge: Ensure food security while volatile, uncertain, complex, andambiguous (VUCA) challenges arise at a faster rate than ever expected. If we continue down the same path that we’reoperating on today, afood system crisiswill cripple our ability to feed Earth’s estimated 10 billion people by 2050. How do we effectively avert this looming crisis while also ensuring a robust, healthy planet for our children and grandchildren?
We must be willing to break boundaries—boundaries that currently exist in our food system that inhibit us from more effectively collaborating, innovating, and discovering better paths to address today’s and tomorrow’s challenges. We must shift from compartmentalized, specialist, and siloed thinking and approaches to embrace a broader food systemsmindset. A mindset centered on navigating our roles and choosing our actions within the food system through a holistic lens that promotes better outcomes at the personal and organizational level as well as locally, regionally, and globally for the food system.
To better understand the impact that shifting to a food systems-thinking approach can have on addressing our challenges, it’s important to explore key pressures facing our food system and how VUCA relates to that system. “VUCA” is a term coined at the U.S. Army War College to describe the more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world after the Cold War. The collapse of the Soviet Union triggered a new world order that required newways of seeing and reacting. At the simplest level, the concepts of VUCA address rapidly changing conditions that can be positive or negative. When you look at the dynamics of the food system today, they meet the very definition of VUCA.
Volatility, or the natureand speed of change, isincreasing in the foodsystem. Many factors affectthe volatility of the foodsystem, includingconsumer preferences andtechnological innovation.For example, theexponential growth ofplant-based meatalternatives and cell-cultured animal proteins inthe past year is changingthe food landscape. It hasalso contributed to thepressure on animalagriculture, which whencombined withenvironmental concernssuch as extreme weather,global warming, disease,and water stress, createsfurther volatility (see“Climate Change – A KeyPressure and ChallengeFacing Our Food System”).
The recent Climate Change andLand report1 from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) exploresthe impact of climate on our food system. Although the current food system feeds mostof the world’s population and the per capita global food supply has increased more than30 percent since 1961, an estimated 821 million people inthe world are currently malnourished and more than 2 billion adults are overweight or obese. In addition, the food system supports the livelihoodsof almost 1 billion people worldwide. However, climate change is already putting pressures on food security.Increasing temperatures are affecting crop yields, changing precipitation patterns are affecting growing conditions, and the greater frequency of extreme events only amplifies effects. For example, this year in the Upper Midwest, a very wet spring with late planting followed by early freezes meantthat many root crops like potatoes and sugar beets were lost. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates the 2019 potato harvest will be 6 percentlower, one of the lowest crops on record, and many farmersin Minnesota lost almost half of their sugar beets. Conversely, higher, and fluctuating, temperatures and drought decreased the 2019 olive harvest by over 30 percent in many regions of Europe, and this follows low production in 2018 affected by a cold snap, heat wave, and severe flooding.
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