The COVID-19 pandemic's impact on the U.S. food system had generated a fair amount of attention. But the entire world food system needs to be considered, according to speakers in a recent webinar.
"We actually need to think about being more globalized," said Daniel Schrag, Sturgis Hooper professor of geology at Harvard University and the director of the Harvard University Center for the Environment.
Schrag spoke during a Feb. 10 National Press Foundation webinar on the future of food. The event, sponsored by Bayer and organized by the National Press Foundation, was available online to the news media.
Other speakers were Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and professor of medicine, Harvard Medical School; and Laura Reiley, business of food reporter for The Washington Post.
Some of the issues addressed, especially climate change, are controversial in Upper Midwest agricultural circles. Other topics during the webinar included supply chain disruptions and whether lessons learned during the pandemic can help to improve food security.
Current population estimates project that the world will have about 9.8 billion people by 2050, and feeding them in a nutritious and sustainable way will be a big challenge, Willett said.
The "standard response" to rising population is to increase food production, primarily grains, by 70%, with much of it fed to animals to produce more meat. A better response would be to focus less on meat and more on other protein sources such as lentils and peas, he said.
Climate change is more of a concern than even many of the people who believe in it may realize, Schrag said, adding that "I think it's important to be honest as a scientist."
"Climate change is a super-hard problem for two factors. It's a collective action problem that is totally global, and humans are really bad at collective action," he said. "We are tribal, we are nationalistic."
The other factor is, "Almost all aspects of climate change have long timescales," he said. "And when I say long timescales, I mean really long timescales." For example, rising temperatures in oceans take place over thousands of years.
More optimistically, "Humans are really good at dealing and adapting to difficult situations," Schrag said. "I'm not sure we're going to solve climate change on the timescale that everybody hopes, but I do think we're going to be ingenious at adapting to it."
Two examples: The 21st century will bring great innovation in both architecture and the adoption of new ag technologies because of climate change, Schrag said.
In her news coverage, Reiley has focused primarily on supply chain disruption and food insecurity for the past 11 months. Going forward, she anticipates the trend of more online food shopping will continue.
That, in turn, will provide more public information on foods preferred by consumers, including recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, and consequently cause more government oversight on what SNAP recipients consume, she said.