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What’s in the Food Supply Chain Matters as much as How Well It Is Functioning

May 9, 2024


According to science writer Max G. Levy, “Right now, 325 million people are acutely hungry. 35 million Americans don’t know where their next meal will come from. The world’s food systems are uneven, fragile, and only becoming more fragile with the climate crisis.”[1] Levy isn’t alone in his concerns. With more mouths to feed each and every day, global food security remains a serious challenge. As a result, there is a lot of focus on the global food value chain and how to make it more robust. Public relations specialist Kim Thurler notes, “Making our food systems better for people and the planet is a big task.”[2] She reports that Nicole Tichenor Blackstone, an Assistant Professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, is working with colleagues to improve the global food value chain using computational modeling — organizing vast amounts of information and analyzing it. Thurler notes, “Blackstone is in the vanguard of research on both the supply and the demand sides of food systems. We need equity in each, she said, in order to create genuine sustainability encompassing environmental, health, economic, and social outcomes.” Food security involves the availability of food (i.e., crop production and the ability to get crops to market) as well as what’s in the food supply chain. Currently, the most important commodities for global food security are grains — wheat, maize, and rice account for over half of all human caloric consumption.


Environmental, Health, Economic, and Social Impacts of Agriculture


Environmental Impacts. The World Wildlife Fund notes, “Agriculture is the leading source of pollution in many countries. Pesticides, fertilizers and other toxic farm chemicals can poison fresh water, marine ecosystems, air and soil. They also can remain in the environment for generations. Many pesticides are suspected of disrupting the hormonal systems of people and wildlife. Fertilizer run-off impacts waterways and coral reefs. … Many farming practices — such as burning fields and using gasoline-powered machinery — are significant contributors to the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations contends that the livestock sector alone is responsible for 18% of all greenhouse gas production. Additionally, clearing land for agricultural production is a major contributor to climate change, as the carbon stored in intact forests is released when they are cut or burned.” Responsible growers are trying to address many of these challenges.


One area that has received a lot of attention is livestock methane production. According to Ilissa Ocko, Senior Climate Scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, “Cutting methane emissions is the single fastest, most effective way there is to slow the rate of warming right now.”[3] One method of reducing methane emissions from animals is reducing the number of animals bred for food. Both vegetable alternatives and cellular agriculture are being tested — with limited success. Thurler reports, “Cellular agriculture, or cell ag, offers the tantalizing prospect of producing meat directly from cells, avoiding the need for farm animals and their substantial demands for feed, water, and other resources.” She goes on to report, “[Blackstone’s] research is comparing the overall environmental impact of cell-cultivated meats with conventionally produced products. … But Blackstone said ‘the billion-dollar question’ is whether the industry can grow to provide a bigger portion of the nation’s meat. Blackstone also hopes to study the social implications of widespread adoption of cellular agriculture and its impact on individuals and communities.” Thurler also notes that regenerative agriculture is gaining more adherents. “Regenerative agriculture, she explains, “incorporates not only organic practices but also proactive measures to nurture soil health. Potential benefits include reduced carbon emissions and increased production long term.”


Health Impacts. Agrifood journalist Paula Andrés Richart reports that leading scientists assert, “Fixing broken food systems could generate up to $10 trillion in economic benefits per year globally.”[4] Those same experts insist, “Politicians are doing too little to tackle the single largest threat to human and planet health.” One of those experts is Johan Rockström, Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, he told Richart, “The biggest, untapped potential is to transition from unhealthy to healthy diets.” Blackstone believes healthy foods should be prescribed as medicine in low-income communities. To that end she supports a project called Recipe4Health (R4H), a food as medicine program that aims to improve health outcomes in low-income communities. The R4H program combines fruit and vegetable prescriptions along with wellness components such as nutrition education, and sourcing of healthy foods. Many experts suggest the world also needs to expand the number of crops people are willing to consume because the current reliance on wheat, maize, and rice could be unsustainable. The staff at ADM writes, “Right now, the world is contending with two critical food challenges: the looming question of how to sustainably feed our burgeoning population and an unprecedented hunger crisis. To successfully address these issues, we must innovate, collaborate and use every tool in our toolbox.”[5] One of those tools is leveraging alternative sources of protein. They explain, “New and innovative proteins have the potential to be a powerful solution that addresses multiple food supply challenges. Bolstering our existing protein supply with additional protein sources will expand nutritious food options, which will benefit consumers looking for more choice and variety in their diets while also improving our ability to feed more people.”


Economic and Social Impacts. Most people understand that agriculture is a tough economic segment in which to work. Weather can dictate outcomes and producers have few options to mitigate those outcomes. As a result, many farmers have come to rely on subsidies to keep afloat. According to Rockström, however, subsidies are not the answer. At the same time, he acknowledges, change can be difficult. In places as diverse as Europe and India, farmers have taken to the street because they are struggling to make a living. Rockström asserts, “We are subsidizing food production today not only in the wrong way by paying for environmentally destroying production systems and unhealthy practices, [but also] by allowing food production to destroy the climate, biodiversity, and freshwater for free.” Richart reports that Rockström and other experts insist, “Those subsidies need to go.” Rockström explains, “If you take away a subsidy, you have to add another economic incentive that allows farmers to shift towards more sustainable and healthy practices. … That’s what has not been done.” At the same time, Rockström understands a transition period needs to take place. That’s why he warns “against removing subsidies and leaving farmers on their own.”


Concluding Thoughts


Journalist Morgan Clendaniel takes a science fiction journey into the future to see how the global food value chain might have adapted. He posits that adaptation was needed because, “We lived through an agricultural bottleneck caused by warm temperatures that caused plagues and diseases, which severely compromised the food sources we were cultivating and consuming. By the end, three quarters of the world’s food was derived from just 12 plant and five animal species. We learned from this mistake and started to embrace true biodiversity, grew meat in labs, and put robotics into farms. … Traditional farmers were left with no choice but to reinvent themselves, although very few had the capacity to adapt to the new kind of agriculture. Most of them were eliminated by robots.”[6] He runs through a number of imagined scenarios but comes to the conclusion that science and technology brings abundance. All good, right? Clendaniel isn’t so sure. He concludes, “Abundance, coupled with artificial intelligence’s ability to anticipate every decision, has emptied our minds and lives of any concerns related to food. But as a result, we have destroyed the pleasure of eating: We never lick our lips in anticipation.” I’m pretty sure that’s not the future we desire. Do we need to adapt? Certainly. Can we adapt by moving the right products through the global value chain at an affordable price? That remains to be seen.


[1] Max G. Levy, “The Sustainable Future of Food Must Bring Everyone to the Table,” Wired, 28 September 2022.
[2] Kim Thurler, “Ingredients for a More Just and Sustainable Food Future,” Tufts Now, 16 February 2024.
[3] Matt Simon, “If You Want to Tackle Climate Change, Start With Methane,” Wired, 11 August 2021.
[4] Paula Andrés Richart, “Fixing our broken food systems: The $10T question,” Politico, 5 February 2024.
[5] Staff, “How Technology Can Help Us Fight Global Hunger,” ADM, 1 March 2023.
[6] Morgan Clendaniel, “It’s the year 2038–here’s how we’ll eat 20 years in the future,” Fast Company, 23 August 2023.

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