Ceteris paribus. Predicting the global food environment of 2035

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Ceteris paribus. Economists use this wonderful phrase with abandon as they prepare forecasts, confining all the issues that are hard to include in an equation into a catchall “all other things being equal.” However, it is certain that, as we try to predict the global food and nutrition environment of 2035, not all things will remain equal. Twenty years ago, we did not see the extraordinarily rapid growth of African cities. Fifteen years ago, we did not predict that the food price crisis of 2007/08 would decisively reverse what had been a long-term decline in global agricultural commodity prices. Even ten years ago, Coca Cola and Pepsico would probably have been surprised to learn that consumption of their products could trend downward so quickly in the U.S. as consumers switched to water and other less-sugary beverages.

As we begin the Foresight process at the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition, what things might we now be taking for granted that will cause future food markets and household nutrition to move in one unexpected direction or another? Three areas in which it is highly likely that “other things will not be equal” come quickly to mind: climate change, corporate investment strategies, and the food environments in which an increasingly urban population will live.

Climate change is clearly one source of future “unequalness.” Researchers are already mining the emerging information to link potentially higher temperatures and more volatile weather patterns to production projections. The race is on with crop breeders attempting to increase plant’s resilience to climate-related factors. But exactly which combination of traits will work best for farmers in western Kenya or southern Ohio over the next two decades may be more difficult to say. And how might ocean warming in the northern Pacific affect wild-caught fisheries and the global supply of seafood? The potentially-large variances between large-scale trends affecting climate and specific agricultural production decisions in any specific geography may well introduce more risk and uncertainty into food markets going forward.

Over the last few decades, corporate strategies have successfully created integrated systems that closely link on-farm production to end-market operations in many countries. Both local and international corporations are likely to continue in this direction and endeavor to expand it in growing markets in Africa and South Asia as population and income growth there will drive demand. But it’s a competitive world out there. Corporations can be expected to both respond to market demand and attempt to shift it in new directions, perhaps increasing the “unequalness” between current and future food environments.  Will the emergence of strong organic food markets in high-income countries be replicated more widely? What kinds of technological or management innovations might further reduce waste and loss in commercial food supply chains?

Future populations will be increasingly more urban than rural. They will be more reliant on markets for their food supplies – and (see above) commercial enterprises will do their best to meet their demands. How well will they succeed – and with what impact on the quality of the food choices that families of all income classes have available? Will busy urban households increasingly seek convenience and affordability over the nutritional quality of their dietary choices? Will public officials prioritise access to healthy, safe, and affordable food over other urban development goals? The “local food” and “community health” movements in the United States and Europe indicate that paying attention to the food and nutritional needs of urban populations should be higher on the to-do lists of mayors and metropolitan leaders than it is now. There are few things about the cities of the future that will resemble the cities of today, especially in those countries where strong population growth is projected. So ceteris paribus will be hugely challenged as we think about the future urban food environments.

By Emmy Simmons

Emmy is Board Member of Partnership to Cut Hunger and Poverty in Africa/AGree, and Member of the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition.

This article is part of a series of blogs on the themes covered by the Foresight project. Each blog-post will contribute to raise a discussion around the key question the project intends to answer: “What decisions to policymakers need to take in the coming decade to ensure that food systems deliver high quality diets that are accessible in low and middle income countries by 2035, particularly for women and children?”
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Image: Georgie Pauwels