Shaping the Future of Global Food Systems: A Scenario Analysis (World Economic Forum)

By Salma Khalil and Susan Alexander

The future of global food systems is the subject of a new report from the World Economic Forum (WEF), renowned for its annual Davos gathering of global business and political elites. “Shaping the Future of Global Food Systems: A Scenario Analysis” is a collaborative effort by leaders from diverse backgrounds, including the major private sector companies, academics, think tanks, the UN and a sprinkling of civil society.  Different hypothetical future food worlds - the scenarios - are developed, explored and analyzed.

While there is an unsurprising, positive emphasis on markets and technology, the report has a wide scope. Aligned with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), it recognizes that human and planetary health are in jeopardy and that food systems need to be transformed.  The potential pathways of “uncertainties” identified in the analysis like trade, climate change policy, inequality and migration make for uncomfortable reading in the context of Brexit and the Trump presidency.

The report aims to get us thinking about four possible scenarios, all of which are considered possible and in certain cases already starting, and to shed light on grey areas traditional stakeholders in our food system may not consider. Rather than predicting future outcomes, the goal of the scenarios is to trigger discussion and explore possibilities based on various social, economic, and technological trends.

The scenarios are based on a few assumptions – predictable developments and trends – that can reliably be expected in 2030. This includes trends like population growth and rising global temperatures. These trends are incorporated into each scenario. These assumptions are then coupled with two major identified uncertainties in the future – shifts in consumer demand and choices, and the nature and state of markets in 2030.

This led to the development of 4 hypothetical scenarios for our future food system:

1. Survival of the Richest

This scenario may sound familiar – a combination of resource-intensive consumption and disconnected markets creates a large gap between developed and developing nations, and little is being done about climate change. There is an increase in geopolitical conflict and migration due to population growth, growing inequality, and food prices. The concentration of capital and depletion of resources by a wealthy minority along with the failure to implement effective climate change policy rings true of the patterns we see today.


2. Unchecked Consumption

Consumer demand has shifted more and more towards unhealthy food and overconsumption, and new technology has allowed the market to respond with more and more food production, focusing primarily on high-volume yields with little nutrient quality. Trade is increasing to meet demand and food prices remain low, providing short-term benefits to both multinational companies and consumers. In the long run, consumption of unhealthy diets leads to rising health care costs, natural resources are being destroyed to meet high demand, and smaller enterprises are losing out against multinational producers.

3. Open-Source Sustainability

Resource-efficient consumption and connected markets has led to an increase in food sources and the building of stronger food systems. Food prices are higher, reflecting the “true cost” of food, and the strengthening of global economies has allowed more consumers to afford the rising cost. There is a consumer shift towards healthier, more nutritious food. Governments are trying to uphold their climate change goals. While many benefit from this scenario, some farmers may be excluded from this connected, global economy, and consumers who cannot afford the rising food prices will be affected.

4. Local is the new Global

In this scenario, nations rely on their own self-sufficient systems, focusing on resource-efficient consumption. While in some developed nations this has led to a greater understanding and appreciation of the food system, and a shift towards healthier diets, this scenario proves difficult for nations without good agricultural land, and emerging nations who depend largely on imports. Global food producers are negatively impacted by decreasing sales, and industrial farmers are pressured to balance their crop production and produce a greater variety of foods. The environmental impact of food production is greatly reduced in this scenario.

Early signs of each of these scenarios are identified in the report, and the need for long-term thinking to drive systemic change is emphasized. The group highlights the need for large scale planning and collaboration amongst diverse groups - policy-makers, farmers, NGOs, researchers, and consumers – all of whom should be aware of the important role they play in shaping the future of the food system. The report brings up many complex, interconnected issues – technology and innovation, government regulations, global trade, and more – but above all urges all stakeholders to assume a role in shaping our food system, and to work together to answer the ultimate question – “How will food systems nutritiously and sustainably feed 8.5 billion people in 2030?”

Shaping the Future of Global Food Systems: A Scenarios Analysis

This report, co-published by the World Economic Forum and Deloitte, presents four scenarios for the future of global food systems.

Read the full report here

For a different perspective on food systems transformation, with a much stronger emphasis on local knowledge, agroecology and political economy read the reports from IPES-FO.

Salma Khalil is a recent graduate in microbiology and food science who is passionate about the growing food movement in Canada.

Susan Alexander is a communications specialist, currently putting down roots in the Montreal food movement.