Each year the Markets Institute at WWF releases a list of potential emerging developments that will affect the global food system and will be important for producers, consumers, the private sector, and governments to consider. The topics are identified through research, interviews, data analysis, gleanings from others, and especially through discussions with the Markets Institute’s Thought Leader Group. Here is a condensed version of our full report. As always, we welcome feedback, so please get in touch.
- Seeing Opportunities
To effectively address a world in change, we need to start by changing how we see opportunities around us. We need to think differently about what already exists and how it might be used. In terms of global food systems, what are the stranded assets that can be used to produce more or different foods more efficiently? We can start with infrastructure — water, transport, energy, storage, and processing, but also brownfields, caves, gas stations, garages, parking lots, etc., as well as repossessed properties, heirs’ lands, and the like. Which can we rehabilitate for different uses?
- Impact of Climate Change on the Food System
The impact of climate change on food production has increased faster than projected. This reality is compounded in the food sector by governments, traders, producers, and others stalling as long as possible before addressing climate change. Most won’t implement strategies to address climate change immediately because they don’t have to, and because they are afraid that if they do, they will be at a competitive disadvantage.
- Addressing the Impossible
Time and again when solutions are put forward for some of the most difficult, intransigent or complicated problems, they are deemed impossible — often by those best suited to design, approve, or implement a proposed solution. Concerns are legitimate, but they can’t be excuses to do less or nothing. Climate change, population growth, and increased and different demands for food require a systemic, global transformation. We need to eliminate some previously acceptable practices, not just improve better ones. We may need different interpretations of existing law or new laws; water and land rights top the list.
- Extreme Events
The number of extreme global weather events is increasing rapidly. In the US, there were 28 extreme events of $1 B or more in 2023. Those included hail, flooding, cyclones, tornado bursts, winter storms, drought, heat waves and wildfires. The number of events in 2023 increased 40% over the average in the three previous years. From 1980 to 2019, the average number of events was eight, versus 22 this decade.
- Awareness of Soil Microbiology
This year awareness of soil health will begin to shift from conversations of regenerative agriculture and carbon sequestration models to the discussion that has been needed for decades — looking at and understanding soil as its own biome. While it will take years to make this pivot, it is important to build the discussion on available science and research. In addition, soil must play a role in credible strategies to reduce the impacts of food production on climate change — and vice versa.
- Shifting Markets
Shifting markets from those solely based on food to markets for avoided GHG emissions and carbon sequestration is necessary and important to make production more resilient and reduce emissions. But it is insufficient as an incentive, as most markets to date pay farmers to do what they are already doing or that are relatively easy to do.
- AI and Machine Learning
The pace of invention, adaptation, and adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning is exploding. While most of the impacts have been positive, the speed of change suggests that the regulatory challenge is beyond the capacity of the public sector. In addition, not everyone can afford or have equal access to these technologies. While there are already positive impacts for many from AI, those creating or buying these technologies will tend to use them for their own interests.
- Market Mechanisms that Cover the True Cost of Food
Humanity has been drawing down renewable natural resources by converting and reducing natural habitats to produce food in ways that degrade soil health. In the face of increased population and consumption (compounded by climate change), we need to reduce the absolute environmental impacts of producing food. Increases in productivity and efficiency have not addressed this issue. In many ways, they have instead increased the gap between better and worse producers.
- Knowledge-sharing platforms
A series of pre-competitive platforms are being established to allow companies to learn more about how long-term contracts can leverage change with suppliers. They do so by addressing key sustainability and resilience issues, learning from other sectors how ESG screens and databases can be used to address feed production. That allows companies to identify and track feed ingredients across animal proteins and create cloud-based databases that can provide credible transparency.