How do we feed the planet in 2050?

Guardian Web |

The numbers are jarring: more than one-quarter of the planet’s 7.5 billion people suffer from malnutrition, and nearly 1 billion are chronically hungry.

If that’s not striking enough, there’s this: the world’s population is expected to reach a whopping 9.7 billion by the year 2050. If we’re unable to feed everyone right now, how can we possibly do it when there are billions more people on Earth?

Some believe the solution lies in simply producing more food. A study recently published in the journal Bioscience suggests that overall food production will need to increase by anywhere from 25-70% between now and 2050.

But, what if we told you that there’s already enough food grown on farms to feed 10 billion people? Yes, enough food for more than 2.5 billion humans than currently exist.

The pressing issue is not one of quantity but instead one of transporting the existing food supply to more people. To paraphrase the novelist William Gibson, this means the future’s food is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.

Food loss epidemic

So what is happening to all this excess food? According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization ( FAO ), an estimated one-third of all food produced for human use, valued at $1 trillion, is lost or wasted each year.

In the book Food Foolish, authors John M. Mandyck and Eric B. Schultz translate that statistic into relatable terms:

“Imagine purchasing three bags of groceries. While driving home, toss half of one bag of food onto the road. That represents the loss that occurs during harvest, processing and distribution. Arrive home and immediately toss the other half of the bag into the trash. That’s the waste experienced by retailers and consumers.”

The environmental implications of these losses are real: the water wasted in food that is never eaten is equal to the water needs of Africa, and the CO2 emissions are equivalent to removing every car off the road across the world.

Few industries would tolerate 30-40% inefficiency, but the food industry faces enormous systemic challenges.

Keeping produce fresh

In the most developed countries, a robust “cold chain” – which means controlled temperatures applied throughout the supply chain, from refrigerated warehouses to refrigerated trucks – helps ensure that food gets from farm to market safely and sustainably.

However, many developing countries lack a strong cold chain infrastructure. The result: a majority of food spoils en route to its destination.

Take the example of an open-air flatbed truck transporting tomatoes in a warm climate such as India. By the time the truck reaches a local market or grocery store, much of the crop has been damaged or destroyed due to the heat, or has even fallen off the truck. A closed, refrigerated truck would save most, if not all, of those tomatoes.



David Appel, president of UTC’s Carrier Transicold & Refrigeration Systems business, , says of all perishable food produced in the world today, only 10% is refrigerated. “There is a huge opportunity to cut food waste and improve food distribution by implementing cold chain technology,” he says. “But to do so effectively, we have to understand local needs.”

According to Appel, the first challenge to developing an adequate cold chain in countries like India is the cost of refrigerated trucks – the equipment needs to be affordable. The second challenge is finding resources to pay for that equipment. That’s where businesses can make a difference.

“There is an urgent need to extend the cold chain, and companies in a position to do something about it, especially global organizations, need to embrace that fact,” says Steven M. Finn, a cofounder and managing partner of the sustainability consulting firm ResponsEcology.

Testing out the future

Businesses such as Carrier are making headway in this area. Last year, Carrier funded researchers from the Indian School of Business to do a field study in India to test cold chain equipment. They worked with a local grower to transport fruits in refrigerated trucks from Punjab to Bangalore: 1,600 miles over rough roads with high temperatures.

The study proved a “triple-win” for the cold chain: an increase in the shelf life of food (from one week to 2 months), a boost in profit of up to 23% for everyone in the supply chain, and a substantial reduction in post-harvest food loss of 76%. What’s more, greenhouse gas emissions were reduced by 16%. And the reduction of emissions from food loss is important.

Kevin J. Fay, executive director of the Global Food Cold Chain Council, says, “a UN FAO study conducted a few years ago concluded that if you consider food waste as a source of greenhouse gas emissions, food waste would be the third biggest emitter in the world behind only China and the United States.”

However, some might be concerned that having additional refrigerated trucks on the road might negate any environmental benefit – or even make matters worse.

The Global Food Cold Chain Council, with support from UTC, commissioned research to find out whether this would be the case.

“We figured, well, we’re going to be reducing food waste but creating so many emissions through more energy use,” Fay says. “However, the analysis revealed that if you were simply able to expand cold chain penetration in developing countries to the same extent that it exists in developed countries, there would still be a 10 to one benefit in terms of the lowered greenhouse gas emissions from the reduced food waste.”

Results like these provide hope that we may yet be able to sustainably feed the planet, both in the near future and in the decades to come. All that’s needed is for more individuals and organizations to recognize the powerful humanitarian, economic and environmental effects that expanding the cold chain could have.

“We already produce enough to feed 2.5 billion more people than are currently on the Earth today,” says Appel. “What other source can allow you to distribute that food and at the same time make very big reductions in the global level of greenhouse gas emissions? I see it as an opportunity to finally address the issue of sustainably feeding the planet.”

That insight can then be translated into practical action, finding skillful ways to redistribute the food that’s already available.

Anything less would just be a waste.

This content is paid for by United Technologies.

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