Twenty-seven years ago, I first entered The Rockefeller Foundation as a Warren Weaver Fellow in the Agricultural Sciences program. I worked under the watchful eyes of Bob Herdt and Gary Toenniessen to help redefine sustainable agriculture—a task that required me to catalogue and analyze more than 300 long-term agricultural experiments in the world. It was clear then, one generation ago, that the world’s food system was facing numerous and growing environmental and social challenges. Now, as we recognize World Food Day, I wonder if we can solve these challenges in the next generation.
Over the intervening three decades, these challenges have intensified and become overwhelming. For instance, our population is climbing steadily toward 10 billion by 2050, potentially increasing the demand for food between 60 to 100%, all in the midst of unprecedented climate change that will tax even the most resilient systems. Today’s food and agricultural systems are accountable for a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and 70% of global freshwater use. Those same systems deplete soils, water quality, and natural habitats all across the world. At the same time, more than 800 million people around the world go to bed hungry each night—a number that, worryingly, has increased in recent years—while nearly 2 billion people suffer from overweight. Altogether, we are facing a pandemic of diet-related, non-communicable diseases.
Yet, this is precisely the time when hope, innovation, courage, and creativity are needed most. We have risen to similar challenges in the past. In the 1930s, the Dust Bowl devastated communities across the United States. The Rockefeller Foundation played a pivotal role in establishing the first Soil Conservation Service that began to stem the worst sources of soil erosion. In the 1960s, the specter of famine in India threatened millions of deaths every year, yet scientists led by The Rockefeller Foundation’s Dr. Norman Borlaug developed innovations that eliminated famines from that country (albeit with some unintended environmental and social impacts).
A new vision for our food system must at once account for human health and nutrition, environmental impact, and the hundreds of millions of jobs that depend on farming, from the smallest village to the world.
The challenges facing our food system today require multiple and complementary transformations, and thus far-greater innovation and creativity than in the past. A new vision for our food system must at once account for human health and nutrition, environmental impact, and the hundreds of millions of jobs that depend on farming, from the smallest village to the world. We cannot expect easy solutions to our problems, but we can hope that collaborative and creative efforts will begin creating the regenerative and nourishing food system needed for continued human progress and prosperity.
Creating a new food system will require four major transformations:
- We have to shift our diets to become more flexitarian, reducing our dependence on animal meat as a primary source of protein (while ensuring that vulnerable populations in emerging markets have access to eggs and dairy) and increasing the consumption of nutrient-rich foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. Our work with the World Wildlife Fund will provide critical analysis of the environmental and health benefits that can be achieved through new protein production scenarios.
- We have to reduce food loss and waste, which now amount to as much as 40% of the food produced for human consumption. We will need to continue reinventing our storage, transport and retail supply chains to reduce food waste and loss to manageable levels—something our YieldWise initiative has shown is possible in both Africa and the United States.
- We must save our soils and reduce the dramatic loss of soil in most agricultural systems. We recently helped to launch FoodShot Global, which will focus its first challenge on building a new soil foundation by providing game-changing technological and ecological tools that enable farmers to optimize yields and the long-term health of land.
- We need to ensure that the latest predictive data, artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies are applied to the food systems of the underserved. As constrained natural resources and lack of food fuel conflict, which in turn destroy the land and other natural resources, we must bring new solutions to vulnerable areas and populations to better ensure global stability.
All of these demands require new thinking, bold initiatives, increased capacities and the ability to translate innovative science into effective policy and practice. Just as important, these challenges require dedicated, courageous and creative champions who believe our food system can be transformed.
Like my mentors and so many before them at The Rockefeller Foundation, those champions will embrace the power of science and technology to promote the well-being of humanity. They will bring a systematic, evidence-based approach to plan and carry out the work. And they will partner with some of brightest people—sometimes unconventional actors—to create a food system that produces healthy, nourishing and sustainable food for generations to come.