What does the global food system look like in 2050? Hopefully very different from the one that exists today, according to the speakers at the Food and Agriculture Conference at Harvard Business School on November 3, 2019. It was the first-ever conference hosted by the Food, Ag & Water Club and – based on the huge turnout and growing interest in the industry– it definitely won’t be the last.
The conference kicked off with a keynote by Professor Robert Paarlberg, adjunct professor of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and author of Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know. Paarlberg emphasized that over the next thirty years we need to improve access to and education about healthy foods. Experts estimate roughly half of diseases affecting Americans today are related to diet and obesity, leading not only to skyrocketing costs of healthcare, but also a disproportionately large burden of chronic disease among vulnerable populations. The picture is not all bleak though-- he also summarized decades of increasing crop yields, due to developments such as precision agriculture and bioengineering. However, if we want to continue sustaining a growing population, he stressed the need to reduce our reliance on the current system of meat production and continue adopting plant-based alternatives. “Right now 50% of milk sales are from plant-based substitutes, but only 1% of meat sales are from plant-based substitutes,” he stated.
Following the keynote, there was a panel on Innovation in Agtech, featuring four panelists from Boston-based ag companies: Indigo Ag, Inari, RootAI, and Freight Farms. The panelists all feel that the current food system is broken, but that technology can help fix it, spanning from CRISPR to robotic arms to iOT sensors. “Farmers have only been incentivized for yield rather than nutrients, which has wide and reaching implications,” commented Jon Hennek from Indigo, whose innovative coatings for seeds essentially act as probiotics to help enrich the nutrient content of the crops as well as the surrounding soil. Another application of recent technology in the sector is the use of drone photography. Aerial images can help farmers identify crops in need of water or fertilizer and more efficiently allocate resources accordingly.
The second panel was on Food Access, featuring panelists from Revolution Foods, Daily Table, EatWell and Fresh Food Generation. When asked about the largest barriers to food access today, the panelists agreed that price, transportation, taste, and education were among the top. How are these companies tackling these issues? Jen Eno from Daily Table discussed how they work with local fisherman to source less popular – but still just as delicious and healthy – cuts of swordfish and can therefore offer it at an unbeatable price of $5/pound in their Dorchester location. Dan Wexler from EatWell discussed how they’re eliminating all of the guessing and uncertainty around “what should/can I cook tonight for my family” with their healthy prepared meal kits priced at $10 to feed a family. However, he added the extra challenge that with such a low margin for error each week, families are often afraid to take a risk on a new food option, even if it could be cheaper and healthier, for fear that they may not enjoy the meal or know how to properly prepare the meal. It could become a significant sunk cost for a family. The panelists also discussed the role that the government could play in the future. “We could save millions in healthcare if we help people make healthier food choices. Ideally in the future you can get a prescription from a doctor for a healthy meal,” commented Eno.
In the afternoon there was a panel on Food Waste with panelists from Cambridge Crops, Harvard Food Law & Policy Clinic, Cero Cooperative and Baldor Specialty Foods. Roughly a third of all food produced today goes to waste and there’s a lot of factors at play contributing to the problem. Some proposed solutions tackle the end of the supply chain - Food law & Policy Fellow pointed out the need for a better standardized labeling system, as consumers currently don't understand that food may still be edible after the "Sell By" dates. Thomas Mcquillan from Baldor also brought up that consumers have been conditioned to buy visually unflawed produce contributing to a lot of waste on the farm level. Overall, consumer re-education could significantly reduce waste at the store. When it comes to avoiding landfills, Maya Gaul from Cero Cooperative, a food recycling and composting company, thinks it is essential for us to reduce consumer barriers to composting, such as special bags or extra fees. Christina Belsito from Cambridge Crops also discussed the company’s recent technological innovation of an edible, silk-based coating for crops that can extend the shelf life of produce, fish, and meat by over two weeks.
The final panel of the day was about the Future of Protein which offered a diverse range of perspectives on how best to tackle the following challenge: the global population is expected to increase by 50% by 2050, but meat demand is expected to increase by 100%. The panel included representatives from Applegate, Studio Hill farm, Memphis Meats and the Good Food Institute. Jesse McDougall from Studio Hill farm emphasized the need to make current meat sourcing significantly more sustainable such as through regenerative farming, which is currently practiced at Studio Hill. In contrast to land-based meat production, David Kay from Memphis Meats discussed the company’s lab-grown meat solution aims to significantly reduce the carbon footprint of traditional meat. Annie Osborn from the Good Food Institute discussed small steps in shifting consumer behavior, referencing that the majority of consumers eating plant-based meat aren’t actually vegetarian, but are choosing brands like Beyond Meat and Impossible as substitutes for a couple meals a week. When asked about what the future of protein looks like in the next decade - panelists agreed it was unlikely that one solution would be the end-all, but that a variety of solutions would likely coexists.
Our current global food system as-is won’t be able to feed 10 billion people in 2050, but hopefully the rapid innovation in the areas of agtech, food access, food waste and protein will get us there.