The Future of Food
In a December 2017 series of articles, Financial Times explored issues projected to affect the global food and beverage industry in the future. The Update‘s previous coverage of the issues examined can provide additional context to these evolving subjects.
Genetically Modified (GM) Crops. Experts reportedly anticipate an increase in GM crop cultivation, which currently covers 185 million hectares worldwide. Makers of GM crops have faced opposition from a number of areas as use of their products has spread, sometimes inadvertently. In the United States, multiple jurisdictions have banned GM crops, but courts have invalidated some bans on the grounds of preemption. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has provided guidance on voluntary labeling of foods derived from GM crops, and Congress has directed the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to create a standard for mandatory disclosure. Europe has largely resisted GM crop cultivation; in April 2017, a majority of EU countries voted against allowing GM maize. The European Parliament gave member states the authority to regulate GM cultivation, but the European Court of Justice confirmed in September 2017 that countries must provide evidence of a “serious risk to human health, animal health or the environment” to restrict crop growth because the “precautionary principle” is not sufficient.
Genetically Engineered (GE) Animals. The introduction of AquaBounty’s GE salmon into Canada’s food supply has reportedly caused experts to predict the development and sale of other GE animals. Canada’s decision to allow the salmon sparked a lawsuit, and many advocacy groups have resisted the possibility of GE animals sold for consumption. Although FDA concluded in 2015 that GE salmon is safe to eat and has little effect on the environment and provided guidance on voluntary labeling, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill in July 2017 to require GE salmon labeling. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) also published guidance assessing potential risks of GE and GM animals, emphasizing the need for a scientific review of environmental risks. In addition, gene-editing technique CRISPR has advanced scientists’ capabilities to customize animal DNA, a development the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine called “both encouraging and concerning.”
Salt, Sugar and Fat Reduction. Financial Times asserts that consumers will continue to exert pressure on food and beverage companies to reduce the amount of fat, salt and sugar in their products. The Washington Post reported that attempts to change sugar and salt content in recipes can result in rises in saturated fats, and a New York Times editorial argued against panics about single ingredients in foods. Taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages are expected to gain further momentum around the world as the benefits and drawbacks of existing taxes become clear.
Edible Insects. As food security experts worry about the sustainability of the current food supply for the rising global population, their recommendations are reportedly turning to underutilized food sources—notably, insects. In 2014, the New York Times and NPR predicted that crickets and other edible insects would be “the next quinoa” as soon as Americans can overcome the “ick factor.” EFSA issued an assessment in 2015 on the use of insect protein in food and animal feed, concluding that risks depend on insect species, production method and the type of substrate used.
Food Waste. While food security experts eye underexploited proteins for the future, as much as one-third of the current food supply is lost or wasted, according to the UN. Some food waste can be attributed to product labeling that indicates a “best by,” “sell by” or “use by” date, which can lead consumers to discard edible food based on a date that may have been selected arbitrarily. Sweden and the Netherlands have criticized the European Union’s mandates on the practice, arguing that some foods should be allowed to be sold without dates, and the Natural Resources Defense Council argued a similar position for the U.S. system. Citing food-waste reduction as his goal, a U.S. senator introduced a bill in February 2016 that would establish uniform standards for date labeling on food. Later that year, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service announced guidance encouraging food manufacturers and retailers to use “Best if Used by” on their labels to consistently communicate the dates on which the food should be disposed.
Grocery Shopping Innovation. China’s food-retail industry has demonstrated how the rest of the world will likely be buying groceries in the future, Financial Times reports. Alibaba Group has created stores that allow customers to scan items as they shop and pay via app, a concept similar to the cashier-free grocery store Amazon is developing in Seattle. The percentage of customers who buy groceries online is expected to continue rising, although U.S. online grocery shopping reportedly accounts for only 2.1 percent of grocery purchases, a fraction of the United Kingdom’s 6.2 percent and China’s 8.5 percent. Some grocery companies have faced legal issues for their online ordering practices; for example, a court found that Safeway breached its contract with consumers by charging them a 10 percent markup for online-only sales. The store ultimately paid $41.9 million to the class, including $31 million in damages and $10.9 million in prejudgment interest.