Food in the 21st Century: Challenges in the Food System
By Jennifer van de Ligt, Ph.D.
As part of our Food in the 21st Century series, we explored in our last article the importance of growing leaders to feed the future. These future leaders must be able to think more holistically as the type and scope of challenges will demand a shift in approach that simultaneously enables efficient food production, extends food safety practices, and enhances sustainability. Approaches will need to embrace the critical and growing complexities as the world population grows from its current 7.7 billion people to almost 10 billion people by 2050, while food production becomes increasingly more global and interconnected.
What are the key barriers in the food system that need to be addressed to sustain our future? Right now, our inaugural class of the Integrated Food Systems Leadership program at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities is being introduced to concepts that will allow them to face some of these daunting challenges that every food company will have to grapple with in the future. Here are a few of these issues:
1. Environment: Because the Earth has a finite amount of available resources, feeding this growing amount of people as sustainably as possible will be of the utmost priority for future generations. Meanwhile, in major food producing countries, farmland acres are being lost every year to phenomena like soil degradation, urbanization, and desertification. In the U.S. alone, 31 million acres of farmland were lost over two decades, according to the American Farmland Trust.
2. Food Safety: For years, the global food safety system has been paper-based and reactive. However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration made an ambitious move in rolling out the Food Safety Modernization Act. To help processors meet the regulations, more digital and preventive tools built around food safety began to flourish and continues to progress with the advent of the Industrial Internet of Things, blockchain, and other technological innovations. However, with the increased use of digital tools, the cybersecurity risks also amplify.
3. Workforce: As the recent U.S. Immigration and Corrections Enforcement raids on food processing plants have shown, there are a number of challenges and uncertainties in the food workforce. The food system has a long tradition of using migrant labor, from crop harvesting on farms to processing packaged food in plants. However, around the world, workers in the food supply chain are vulnerable to accidents and illnesses. Food companies will be increasingly held responsible to ensure not only the safety of their employees, but the safety of their suppliers’ and customers’ workers as well.
4. Changing Consumers: Consumers today want very different types of products than previous generations. To stay relevant and competitive, more food companies have introduced exotic flavors and products. These R&D efforts have expanded companies’ breadth and geographical sourcing footprint of ingredients used. And in a time where climate change and geopolitical conditions can rapidly shift what is readily available and when, companies are being forced to become more agile.
Because we are facing a growing world population with less farmland to feed everyone, producing the amount of food needed in the future will take every innovation we have now, and then some. Agricultural and food production must become more efficient with less loss and waste to provide for the projected number of people on this planet by 2050. Investments in crop management, new ways to efficiently process foods, and vastly improved supply chain and logistics will have to take place. If not, food security could become an enormous public issue around the world with rising food costs.
As the food supply chain becomes increasingly global, fair labor issues will also need special attention. Ethical treatment of workers throughout supply chains, especially in developing countries, must be ensured and verified. Moreover, the world’s workers must stay safe while producing food with assurances they have the correct training on dangerous equipment or the proper safety attire to minimize occupational accidents or illnesses.
The challenges of food in the 21st century are vast and complex, which is why programs like the Integrated Food System Leadership program are critical in helping teach our future leaders how to think broadly about the entire farm-to-fork process. By employing a systems-thinking approach, these next-gen food leaders will be able to see the interconnectedness of all steps in the production of food. To produce quality, safe, and sufficient food in the years ahead, focusing on one piece of the puzzle won’t solve the problems we will face; considering all parts and their relationships will be critical to navigate the future.
Jennifer van de Ligt, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities, the director of the Integrated Food Systems Leadership Program, and the associate director of the Food Protection and Defense Institute. She has an extensive background in animal feed and human food production, nutrition, product development, and food safety and regulations. She uses this background to lead the Integrated Food Systems Leadership Program dedicated to improving the leadership and systems thinking capabilities of early to mid-career professionals affiliated with any aspect of the food system. Prior to joining the University of Minnesota, Dr. van de Ligt held numerous leadership positions at a global food company operating in 70 countries.