Fixing the Food System to Feed the Future

Dr. Martin Bloem is the Director of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future at the Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland.

Learn about his take on food systems and how, within the context of  global nutrition and food security,  we can feed the world through 2050 and beyond. 

How would you propose changing the global food system to be able to feed 10 billion people here in the near future?

The food system is complex, and if we are going to feed the world we must recognize that different populations have very different needs. More than 5 billion people live in regions with undernutrition and over 2 billion people are living with obesity. If you want to make agriculture more climate friendly and sustainable, you have to deal with the nutritional impact of shifts in food production. Overnutrition, undernutrition, and climate change are all issues that build on the problems that already exist and just focusing on increasing production won’t be the solution for a healthy future. There isn’t one solution that will work to make it better, it is so much more complex than that.

Fixing the food system to keep up with the population growth is a complex issue so we have to handle it as a complex issue. We need to think about climate, farmers, diversity, and how the reflection of issues affects people at the country level. Simple solutions don’t exist for feeding 10 billion but there is a space to do a good job so we can live still on this planet.

Are large agricultural operations better or should everyone be producing their own food?

There seems to be a narrative that persists in some circles that local foods are better, tastier, and healthier options. This is unfortunate considering it’s simply not the case nor is it an option for many populations. If you live around the equator, it is fertile but if you go to the Sahara, it isn’t. The moment you have people saying everything needs to be produced locally, it simply won’t work. Produce locally where you can and trade where you can. Staple food is so important for stability, but diversity is still essential.

Who is responsible for changing the food system?

NGOs and the private sector have a responsibility, and we need to find a common agenda where there is a big focus on the whole value chain. The moment you have a common goal, things will change. A lot of young people believe they can change the food system as well.

More sustainable food production is essential, but somebody needs to pay for it. People in the US and EU only spend 10 percent of their income on food, while in other countries people spend 50 to 70. The Baby Boomers didn’t want to pay for it, but the millennials do.

Millennials have the power. They know the world is important and climate change is real. A young presenter at a global meeting I attended recently said that even though they don’t have the money, they still love food and will put more of their dollars behind it. They are the future and the ones who will decide what the food system will look like.

Can plant biotechnology, crop protection, and other agricultural innovation be a part of the solution?

Yes. All of these technologies can be part of the solution, but we must weigh the costs and benefits of each. When you talk about farming systems it isn’t just political, the research needs to be done on the system’s culture, anthropology, spirituality – all these things contribute to differences in lifestyle and differences in a viable solution, be it technical or something else.