Dr. Tom Simmons, Founder & CEO, The Supplant Company.
Our current food system is partly responsible for three of the biggest social problems facing humanity, which I collectively call the food system trilemma: global health challenges, climate impact and food insecurity. The good news is that our food system is also uniquely able to solve these problems.
What’s the best way to address these challenges and improve the food system? Just as “one bite at a time” is the best way to eat an elephant, many companies, governments and NGOs like to address each of the three problem areas alone. While this approach to food transformation makes sense, I feel some skepticism about it.
I believe the solution lies in addressing the holistic problem altogether rather than breaking the problem into parts and solving each part on its own.
Remember, the food system is just that: a system. Behind the scenes, everything is connected. Any attempt to address one problem will inevitably have an impact, good or bad, on another. To avoid compromising one social good by addressing another, food innovators need to magnify their impact by understanding and improving their impact on all three.
This goal is analogous to a concept in economics called a Pareto Improvement: “an improvement to a system when a change in allocation of goods harms no one and benefits at least one person.” That means it’s an unambiguous step forward.
To make such clear steps toward a nutritious and sustainable food future, food and agriculture companies must target their impact across all three pillars of this trilemma at once. Let’s take a closer look.
It’s no secret that the current food system is making us all sick. Poor diets, with their excess sugar, fat, carbs and salt and insufficient fiber, vitamins and minerals, cause about one in five deaths globally every year. While people do love to eat these kinds of foods, they’re risking cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity and some kinds of cancers (pdf download).
If food and agriculture producers can make healthier products, they’ll be making progress toward solving the growing global problem of both malnutrition and obesity. But innovation that makes food more nutritious shouldn’t do so at the expense of total global agricultural output.
For example, food producers who rely too heavily on selecting “high-quality” fruits and vegetables while discarding “inadequate” ones can sacrifice food accessibility even while trying to advance nutrition. By using vegetables that might have otherwise gone unused, companies like Imperfect Foods and Oddbox help rebalance this approach—though I believe its potential can go much further.
Climate And Sustainability
It’s also no secret that growing and producing food has substantial climate impacts. As the food system struggles to accommodate rising demand, it causes ever greater impacts through excessive water use and fertilizers needed to ensure bigger crops, all while also damaging biodiversity through deforestation to create agricultural land.
The food industry has become this way in an effort to improve volumes, and as such, some of the most obvious immediate ways to reduce the environmental impact of modern agriculture inevitably come hand-in-hand with reduced yields. But companies like those engaged in vertical agriculture—a method to grow crops in unconventional spaces like warehouses and rooftops—are on the right track here, helping to reduce environmental impact without reducing the quality or quantity of food globally.
Food Security And Accessibility
Finally, it’s no secret that the combination of a growing global population and limited arable land means the food and agriculture industry will have to change to keep pace with producing an estimated need for 60% more food by 2050.
Over the preceding decades, our food system has developed into a globally distributed system that has enabled a huge expansion in overall production. But because of that, a lot of the foods we eat today are optimized for long-term storage and long-distance travel at the expense of freshness. Supply chain innovations such as localizing food production can help redress the situation by enabling fresher food to become more of a staple and by lowering emissions associated with transporting the food.
The ideal innovations to address the food system trilemma of global health challenges, climate impact and food insecurity will be ones that improve the total output of the food industry and do so with more nutritious food and without greater negative environmental impact. Such comprehensive innovations will inevitably comprise the building of some completely new supply chains based on new perspectives on what our food system produces and wastes.
The public is increasingly aware of the trade-offs that happen when those criteria are not met. That’s why, in the coming decades, companies that can live up to the challenge of providing innovative and sustainable new sources of edible products will likely see significant growth.
It’s time for more companies to commit to this kind of system-wide Pareto improvement. Instead of solving just one problem, be it health, climate or food security, we can magnify our investments in the food system by finding ways to solve all three problems at once—a system-thinking approach that’s essential for the ongoing prosperity of our industry, our planet and the people on it.
Food innovators, let’s start becoming system thinkers.
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