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“We Cannot Predict the Future, But We Can Invent It” Dennis Gabor

Imagine the future

Have you ever wondered how the future will be? How will food be produced? What are we going to eat?

The future is very difficult to predict but today’s decisions often shape tomorrow’s outcomes. Foresighting is a method that aims to increase awareness about the future. It is used to boost the understanding of possible futures and to identify the upcoming challenges. Depending on those challenges, foresighting aims to clarify the tasks that need to be accomplished in order to move towards one direction or to avoid it.


Future Scenarios

Scenario creation is one of the foresighting methods. In this method, two variables affecting the society are selected and four scenarios are built based on their extreme cases. Different variables can be selected depending on the issues to be highlighted. In the Foresight Study created by the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission, the selected variables are ‘societal values’ and the ‘agricultural commodity prices’, as shown in the Picture below.

A foresight study on food and health

The relationship between nutrition and health status is lately a point of major discussion. This is due to the high impact on individual’s lives but also the increased burden on healthcare systems. Therefore, it is essential to address the challenges of health promotion and disease prevention when defining the future of the Agri-food sector.

The scenarios created by the JRC aim to open a discussion about research priorities by imagining the food and nutritional habits in future societies. The four scenarios are described below:

Scenario 1: Healthy New World – society focusses on health

In this society, there is a strong community spirit with social coherence, high living standards and relatively high taxes. Commodity prices are relatively low due to a successful adaptation to climate change. Household expenditure on food and beverages has increased due to higher quality products. Healthy foods and lifestyle are of major importance to all, monitored by mobile platforms. Overall, the health status of people is good, driven by disease prevention and access to the state health care system. Unhealthy foods have mostly disappeared from the market and restaurants focus on nutritious foods as well. The private food sector has experienced considerable concentration, resulting in large companies while SMEs operate in niche markets, offering high-value products and diversity. Agricultural production is primarily aimed at food production and less at animal feed and biofuels. Technological developments are widely used and generally accepted, though people are cautious.

Scenario 2: Heal the World – society focusses on sustainability

Global climate change impacts have resulted in scarce natural resources and increased food prices. Imported, unsustainable and unhealthy foods are taxed, and people have realised they need to adhere to sustainable diets and lifestyles, both in environmental and health terms. There is a strong community spirit. Governments closely control food quality and safety and the limited healthcare has shifted focus from treatment to prevention. Diet-related and degenerative diseases remain a concern. Technological developments focus mainly on sustainability, biodiversity and cost-reduction. Digital technologies monitor health status and align food purchasing with individual health and dietary needs. GMOs, alternative protein sources, nanotechnology and novel farming methods are accepted and needed. In terms of employment, teleworking is common, saving time and transport costs. Agricultural production is restricted to medium-sized farms and individual production in the cities, and there is competition between crops for food and biofuels. Shorter food chains are dominated by large companies that produce bulk foods and focus on sustainable EU products. Food choices are restricted, and people rarely eat out due to high prices.

Scenario 3: Eat to Live – society focusses on cost-reduction

In this society, people favour self-interest. Food prices are high even though foods are mass-produced at low costs. Companies grow crops that yield the highest revenues, causing competition between food, feed and biofuels. Compromised food safety and public health has led to disease outbreaks, while food fraud is undermining trust. Mobile applications monitoring health and facilitating dietary choice are affordable, but science-based applications are very expensive. Eating functional foods and supplements is considered a healthy habit rather than focussing on a balanced diet. Inexpensive protein sources such as insects are preferred over expensive real meats. Food variety is very low and mainly restricted to mass-produced, fortified foods. Retail is non-specialised while convenience, taste and health are strong secondary drivers after price. The food system is a truly global food chain consisting of large companies. Additionally, there are some specialised businesses, based on own cultivation or food waste recovery. Technological developments and cost-effectiveness are considered necessary to keep food prices from rising further. Smart homes are linked to specific retailers and offer home delivery. Those who can afford it use smart kitchens for cooking, which automate food preparation and reduce the need for cooking skills. Jobwise, people have long working days and sometimes two jobs.

Scenario 4: Me, Myself and I – society where self-interest is dominant

A scenario where strong individualism, personal rights and initiative are valued above the common good. Commodity prices are low due to successful adaptation to climate change and use of second-generation biofuels. Food prices vary but are generally affordable since the EU is a prosperous region. The public has a positive attitude towards technology, perceiving it as the basis of its welfare. Innovation is driven by diverse consumer needs. Novel devices, pre-set to genotypes and preferences, do shopping automatically, while novel breeding technologies improve nutrient profiles. Healthcare is private but affordable and medical progress focusses more on early-intervention than prevention. Personalized diets are adapted to preferences and biological needs. A wide variety of foods are available in the market, with frequent use of nutraceuticals and supplements. Ethical values, such as animal welfare and food waste, are of no major concern to people. Online shopping and home delivery are common. The food sector includes multinationals and SMEs, offering solutions according to individual preferences when eating out or delivering food to the home. Flexible jobs allow for tailored working schemes regarding time and location.

Research priorities

These scenarios have been used during workshops to identify research priorities and explore the possibilities of shifting to healthier diets towards 2050. This was achieved by analysing the challenges rising from each scenario and identifying those that could be tackled by research.

This foresighting study identified ten research priorities divided into four thematic areas:

1.     Towards healthier eating: integrated policy-making

  • Improve the evidence base for the adoption of healthier behaviour.
  • Develop a scientific framework for a systems approach to food and nutrition policies
  • Provide a framework to design, monitor and evaluate policies.

2.     Food, nutrients and health: cross-interactions and emerging risks

  • Deepening the understanding of human nutrition: facing the complexities
  • Anticipating emerging risks

3.     Making individualised diets a reality

  • Data needs: Creation and management of necessary data for enabling individualised diets
  • Analysis of feasibility and impacts of individualised, healthy diets

4.     Shaping and coping with the 2050food system

  • Understanding the social role of food
  • Towards a sustainable food system producing safe, affordable and healthy dietary component
  • Supporting technologies to meet social needs

Source:   Bock, A.-K. et al. Tomorrow’s healthy society. Research priorities for foods and diets. (2014).

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