by Christophe Pelletier
First published in Milling and Grain, August 2015
The growing population is often perceived as a threat for the future. The challenges are there, indeed. Yet, looking at the glass half empty is not necessarily the best approach. The future needs to be looked at with a different perspective than the past and the present. Many things have to change and evolve. It is true, but it was true a century ago, too.
We should celebrate much more loudly than we currently do the fact that, although there are still close to one billion people hungry, an unprecedented number of six billion people can eat enough every day. We also must keep in mind that we achieve this performance in spite of substantial food waste and inefficiencies in both production and supply chains in many regions. If we need to change how we operate in these two areas, it is also crucial to be alert to adapt to a changing consumer market.
The growing world population is not so much about how many people there will be in 2050 as it is about what they will eat. The diets of the future will determine the sustainability of food supply. Proper nutrition education is an absolute necessity to get on the path of a sustainable agriculture. The exciting part of feeding the future lies in the dynamics of future food markets. The population is growing but not everywhere in the same way or at the same pace. Next to the growing number of people, their economic situation also evolves at different paces between the regions.
As the number of people joining the world middle class increases, they will look at food differently... and so must food producers. There are useful lessons to learn from the evolution of food markets in Western countries after World War II. Today’s emerging countries show a similar pattern. Food is not anymore a matter of daily survival for their populations. Food is not just for the stomach anymore but the psychology of food consumption evolves, too.
That is exactly what Maslow described with his pyramid of needs. Once the physical need is covered, in this case food security, other needs appear. The social and emotional functions of food start to prevail. As they go up in the pyramid, consumers become more demanding and challenging. It is quite normal. It is how human nature works. It also has the amazing ability of disrupting the desire of the industry for well-standardized and cost efficient processes; hence the frustration and the difficulty to get on the same wave length.
With increasing absolute numbers of wealthier and more critical consumers, it is only normal to expect a strong growth of niche specialties. Such a trend started several decades ago in Europe and has been in full bloom in the US for some time, too. A similar trend is already growing in the leading emerging countries such as China and India, and it will only grow further and stronger.
The future offers an amazing number of possibilities for niche markets. The reasons and possibilities for differentiation are and will be many. They range from physical quality to production methods to social, philosophical, political, ethnic and ethical issues as well as provenance, transparency and trust. Feel free to define subgroups in these categories and you will map a myriad of possibilities.
Such trends will be true for all food categories. Some food groups will keep showing very strong growth in the coming decade. That is the case for protein, and in particular animal protein. Protein crops will be in demand for animal feed production. Carbohydrate crops will increasingly be used for animal feed both in volume as in share of total consumption. Oil seeds and oil crops will also show a strong demand because of their many uses in industrial processes, not only as human food. It will also be the case of fruits and vegetables and of “pleasure” commodities such as nuts, cocoa and coffee.
Beverages, in particular wine and beer will also drive strong demand for grapes and barley. For these food categories, the growth will be on both volume and the number of niche specialties, which will create even more levels of opportunities. Other food groups will reinvent themselves mostly through quality schemes. Expect this to be the case for the food groups with a bad reputation such as edible fats and grain.
The trend towards a change of heart regarding fats is already in motion and many prejudices are now being corrected. The same will happen with carbohydrates in the future. When that happens, consumption will not return towards undiscerning use of fats and carbohydrates in large amounts, but it will be about nutritional, sensory and health qualities.
The world is changing and opportunities will come up in different places than by the past. Anticipate, adapt and thrive!
Christophe Pelletier is a food and agriculture strategist and futurist from Canada. He works internationally. He has published two books on feeding the world’s growing population. His blog is called “The Food Futurist”.
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