Sustainable options in the food industry are on the rise. In the last 50 years or so, as our food systems have become more centralized and less local, more mechanized and less hands-on, the math on food production has grown increasingly unsustainable. The coming years have the capacity to be a tipping point where “sustainable,” “organic,” and “local” foods cease to be a niche market and become the common means of agricultural production in the U.S. and around the world.
Here are three trends I expect to see move forward in 2013:
1. Increased Transparency
2012 was the closest we’ve ever come to seeing labeling on GMO products in the U.S., thanks to the battle for Prop 37 in California. Though that effort failed in the end, it garnered public attention for transparency when it comes to what’s in our food—and it brought massive pushback from big businesses that oppose GMO labeling in the form of $48 million in advertising dollars. That may not sound promising, but it means increased attention from both sides on the major problem of knowing what’s in our food and how it affects our health—and the health of the food system as a whole.
That increased awareness is spreading through our food supply chain. Josephine over at Green and Ginger notes “growing consumer outrage over the lack of transparency about what’s really in our food.” New apps are bringing information that big corporations may not want you to know straight to your fingertips at the point of sale. That kind of ground-up food transparency has the power to change our food systems for the better.
2012 also saw attention fall on our entire supply chain, and how people are treated along the way. According to TriplePundit, sustainable isn’t just about local anymore. There is growing concern for how workers are treated in our big food systems, and more people are doing something about it. As these trends ripple through our food systems in 2013, we’ll see backlash—but also growing transparency as consumers vote with their dollars.
2. Decreased Centralization
This one will make itself apparent across scales in 2013 and beyond. As the costs of food and gas rise (due to 2012 drought conditions , peak oil scenarios, and ongoing climate disruptions), shipping foods across vast distances is going to become less appealing to large producers. So is packing animals into isolated buildings and bringing costly food to them, rather than allowing them to range outdoors and forage from the landscape. As limiting resources change, the shape of food operations will change, too.
The changes are already getting started. Research on “food hubs” is growing among NGOs, government organizations, academics, and producers. Designed to provide infrastructure and market interaction for small- and medium-scale producers, food hubs can take the form of online farmer’s markets, brick-and-mortar retail locations, or wholesale distribution operations. These operations are bringing practical local food choices back into the basic infrastructure of our food systems. Food hubs are already changing the face of food production and distribution, and the changes will only accelerate in 2013.
3. Supply Chain Innovation
As transparency grows and our big food systems work to decentralize, supply chain innovation will become a necessity. And there’s plenty of room for improvement. Food waste is a major concern in the U.S.—2 billion people could be fed for a year on the amount the U.S. throws away annually.
That equates to the consumption of 300 million barrels of and ¼ of all freshwater consumption each year. As resource scarcity escalates and costs rise, even the big dogs will start paying more attention to managing waste.
But innovation won't stop there. I expect to see more options for people who want to eat fresh, local food, and the beginning of a slow decline for mass-produced, resource-heavy, nutrient-poor supermarket foods.
2013 promises to be an exciting year in sustainable food systems, in the U.S. and around the world. As economic, environmental, and social pressures collide, necessity will be the mother of invention.