It’s obvious that major stresses are appearing in the global food supply (i.e., recalls, price spikes, global hunger and high levels of waste), and that core trends such as climate change, population growth, and changing consumption patterns will likely exacerbate these stresses. While the world currently produces enough food to feed the global population 1 billion people go to sleep hungry each day. At the same time, one in three Americans over 20 is obese, and current agricultural practices are widely viewed as unsustainable. After years of increasing yields, falling food costs and record crops, we are facing a truly global food crisis.
It is tempting for governments and businesses to view these events and trends through a polarized filter, seeing only the impact to one’s own country or operations. The notion of food security has come to mean ensuring enough food for one’s own population, whatever the cost. Wealthy, water starved nations are acquiring vast tracts of farm land around the globe to ensure access to food, and concerned governments increasingly resort to curbing exports when food prices spike. At the same time we seem to be deluged with high profile product recalls as the highly processed nature of the food we eat and the complex global supply chain becomes more challenging to monitor and manage. And we are hearing more demands for greater inspection of the food supply.
These approaches are mostly short sighted and often selfish and don’t address the underlying issues within the food value chain. So, what’s needed? A more holistic and pragmatic approach that ensures the safety of the food we produce, the sustainability of the practices we use to raise and process it, and the security of the overall food supply from macro level threats such as climate change.
Smarter food policies at the government level will ensure a more equitable and rational allocation of resource and sustainable production of food – critically important as climate change forces major shifts in how and where crops are grown. Smarter supply chains will tackle issues like food waste and spoilage (estimated at 40-50% of all food), and reduce out of stock at retail that currently cost the consumer goods industry 2.5% of sales.
A growing number of online conversations and events are focused on these issues, bringing together key stakeholders to engage in frank discussions about problems, solutions, costs and benefits. But given the gravity of the challenge we face – 1 billion additional people on the planet by 2020 – the window for talking is exceedingly small, and the time for bold action is now.
IBM will be tackling these issues at a forum tomorrow in Washington, D.C., bringing together policy makers, food industry experts, manufacturers and retailers to discuss the future of food safety and quality and to share views on how we can make significant improvements for consumer safety and confidence, the food industry and the world. Join the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #ibmfoodDC.