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The Future of Food

We take a lot for granted when we eat. Whether we’re enjoying a meal at home or dining out, we tend to think of it as a simple transaction—somebody provides the food, we eat it. When we think about the challenges of feeding the world population—which is due to reach 10 billion by 2050—the immediate solution would seem to be to produce more food, enough for all 10 billion of us. But the reality of food is more complicated.

It takes a network of people, businesses, governments and institutions all working together to produce, process, deliver, market, prepare, consume and replenish the food that sustains us. We call this network a food system. Food systems work on all scales, from small local markets to global trade networks. They all depend upon the safe, effective and mutually beneficial cooperation of everyone in the food system, and they can be affected by cultural, political and environmental factors. When we talk about feeding the world, we’re really talking about making our food systems more sustainable.

The UF/IFAS Institute for Sustainable Food Systems (ISFS) conducts research to develop more sustainable food systems through discoveries in food systems and human health, global food security, sustainable food production and advanced metrics to track the efficacy of food systems. On January 15, IFSF will be hosting the Future of Food Forum, an international gathering of leading experts, entrepreneurs, researchers, and innovators to discuss the future of food with an eye toward feeding the world in 2050. You can learn more about the Future of Food Forum here, and join the discussion via live streaming.

There are five characteristics every sustainable food system should have, and UF/IFAS Extension works with farmers, entrepreneurs, governments, NGOs, consumers, and other stakeholders to apply scientific research in meeting each of these requirements.

1. Safe and nutritious food must be produced, processed and distributed fairly and efficiently.

UF/IFAS Extension agricultural agents put research to work to help growers increase their yields while reducing the amount of irrigation water other inputs needed. In the case of Florida’s potato industry, Extension has helped growers in Manatee County save 1 million gallons of water per day while increasing yields by 20 percent. At field days and other events, we demonstrate newly developed crop varieties that have greater resistance to disease, pests and frost and are better tasting and more nutritious. Food safety and quality programs coordinated by family and consumer science faculty provide training in safe food processing for food managers, handlers and entrepreneurs.

2. People must have access to food and be healthy.

Nutrition education programs such as the Family Nutrition Program (FNP) and the Expanded Food and Nutrition Program (EFNEP) empower families to access nutritious foods and improve their health. In 2018, FNP helped more than 101,000 Floridians with limited resources increase their access to health foods and supported 341 school and community gardens growing fresh fruits and vegetables. In the same year, more than 10,000 people benefitted from EFNEP education, with 58 percent of adults and 20 percent of youth improving their food security while saving an average of $468 in food costs.

3. Environment and natural resources must be conserved.

Best Management Practices (BMP) promoted by UF/IFAS Extension are designed to help agricultural businesses farm and ranch more sustainably while reducing nutrient loads in water leaving their properties. In 2015, BMPs helped growers reduce phosphorus loads in the Everglades Agricultural Areas by 79 percent. As of 2017, over 5 million acres of Florida agricultural land has been enrolled in BMP programs.

4. Businesses need to be profitable and individuals should have economic opportunity.

UF/IFAS Extension works with food producers of all sizes and types, from large scale operations to small farms growing row crops, cattle, dairy, apiculture and aquaculture. The Small Farms and Alternative Enterprises program offers resources that use the latest economic research to help farmers develop business plans, expand into new ventures like agritourism and find the right markets for their goods. UF/IFAS Extension offers several programs to assist new and existing food businesses, including Florida Food Entrepreneurship, HACCP, Certified Food Protection Manager Training, Food Preservation and Cottage Food training.

5. Communities need to be resilient to economic, political and environmental changes.

Changes in climate, environmental health and government regulations can disrupt food systems, with sweeping effects on a community’s ability to thrive. When a state ban on gill nets was passed in the mid-1990s, the decline in the commercial fishing industry was a potential threat to the coastal town of Cedar Key. UF/IFAS and Florida Sea Grant helped Cedar Key build a new and sustainable hard clam aquaculture industry that revived their economy. That’s just one example of how UF/IFAS Extension partners with county governments and local businesses to develop more resilient communities.

All of these UF/IFAS Extension programs have significantly contributed to making food systems more sustainable, but much more work needs to be done. The challenge of feeding 10 billion people by 2050 will require greater effort and new innovative solutions to help stakeholders develop more sustainable food systems. UF/IFAS Extension will be participating in the Future of Food Forum and considering its recommendations carefully in developing our upcoming Extension Roadmap in 2020.

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