A note from 2050 on the Food Revolution
The year is 2050, and the world’s population is almost 10 billion. You’re sitting down to dinner with your family – well, your son’s avatar, because he’s away at college – and your partner brings you dinner. On your plate are the tomatoes and zucchini that you grew on your roof, a couple of organically farmed potatoes, and what looks and tastes exactly like an Atlantic salmon filet – only it’s a much more sustainable alternative, packed full of protein, and totally delicious.
Just over 30 years ago, experts predicted this rapid population growth – and thankfully for humankind, innovators paid attention. They realized that, if the human race was going to keep multiplying at the rate it was, the land and water could not handle the way food production was going and we would ultimately run out of sufficient and nutritious food for the global population. In 2020, around 70 billion chickens were slaughtered each year, and approximately 93 percent of marine fisheries worldwide are fished at or beyond sustainable catch levels – yet more and more people were lacking access to safe, nutritious, and sufficient food – including protein. Something had to radically change.
Governments, tech experts, and food scientists understood that meat production practices were having terrible effects on the environment, and that agriculture, on the whole, was emitting more greenhouse gasses than cars, trucks, and planes combined (although actually, the industry involved using a lot of those too) and yet, the global food industry was also failing to provide for the 690 million people going hungry each year. So, they came together and found solutions for a future where agriculture was built more sustainably, where we didn’t rely on slaughtering billions of animals for protein, and where no one went hungry.
Here’s how they did it:
Freezing agriculture’s footprint
In 2020, soils around the world were over-farmed and running out of nutrients, while the global land we’d taken up to raise livestock was roughly the size of Africa, and the land used for crops around the size of South America, as National Geographic reported at the time. We halted it there, and instead of clearing new lands to make new farms, we focused on the farms we had, specifically on improving the productivity of farms in Africa, Eastern Europe, and Latin America.
Between 2020 and 2050 we became much more efficient in not just where we grew but how we grew, using precision farming technology to yield more crops from existing farms in a sustainable way. Almost entirely ceasing deforestation to clear new farmlands meant more trees to take more carbon out of the atmosphere, which also had a hugely positive effect on sustaining the world’s biodiversity by maintaining these vast and vital habitats.
Saving water and eliminating chemicals
Agriculture, by nature, takes up a huge amount of water – and at one point, around thirty years ago, it was taking up 70% of the world’s water use – much more than human settlements or any other industry. By using technology like smart targeted irrigation systems and moisture sensors more widely, the industry has been able to massively cut down on water waste. Widespread drip irrigation was employed too, delivering water directly to a plant’s roots, rather than spraying plants from above, which loses more water through evaporation. Farmers also pivoted to organic farming, using compost and mulch to improve soil’s water-holding capacities. Old school, but it worked.
Thankfully in 2050, Farming has also seriously cleaned up its act when it comes to polluting water. Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides had historically led to water contamination through runoff, while factory farms once stored huge amounts of waste in lagoons that can rupture and infiltrate other water supplies. A combination of legislation to curtail this type of farming and a global cut down on meat consumption over the last three decades has made vital leaps in reducing these risks to the environment and preserving our now abundant water supplies.
Powerful high-protein products
These days, as we enter the 2050s, most of us eat very little red meat and many of us do not eat meat in the traditional sense at all. But it wasn’t always this way.
Growing wealth in countries such as China and India over the last half a century was one factor that likely accelerated demand for more meat, eggs, and dairy, according to National Geographic – increasing the need for more corn and soy products with which to feed livestock. In 2020, experts anticipated that the combination of global population growth and richer diets would require double the amount of crops needed by 2050, unless we could find alternatives – which we did.
In 2024, a team of scientists built on the work that was already being done to create plant-based meat alternatives and revealed a bigger and better breakthrough – viable chicken and fish alternatives that are now eaten as part of our everyday diets. Incentivized by the $15M XPRIZE Feed the Next Billion competition, what these scientists created was a nutritious, affordable, protein-based food that served up a solution to the increased demand for protein.
The positive repercussions have since rippled across the earth. A drastic decrease in industrial farming has meant that in 2050, animal welfare has drastically improved over the past thirty years, while the environmental footprint of the global meat industry has finally reached a more sustainable point. Plus, families spend less on meat products, at no cost to their diets. In fact, our diets are much healthier – reducing the overall burden of disease and having a positive effect on both our happiness and healthcare systems.
Better supply chains
Another breakthrough in what we now call the “food revolution” came in the form of improving our supply chains. In the past, the growing demand for food among middle-income countries was putting big pressure on farmers in developing countries where up to 70% of employment is in the food and agriculture sectors, mostly on an informal basis or on smallholding farms. Through efforts to build fairer and less exploitative farming, and with increased education and training, more local farmers have been able to rely on food production as a lucrative and stable source of income, while the rest of the world eats more responsibly.
While many of us made a conscientious effort to grow our food and to shop locally, we struck the right balance with supporting the local and also the global agriculture industry. Big food conglomerates made the latter greener for us by transforming the way that food supplies are transported. In the US alone, diesel fuel used to make up 25% of energy used by the food system, but through a gradual switch over to electrical trucks, this has been drastically reduced.
Battling food waste
Back in the 2010s, when estimates found that 1.3 billion tons of food were wasted globally per year, we realized this was totally unacceptable. In more developing countries, waste mostly happened between farming and the market, often in transportation, due to heat, difficulties with refrigeration, mold, and other issues – meaning that moves to improve stock management and to create better infrastructures made a great big difference. In more developed countries – a lot of this food simply went into the trash in homes, supermarkets, and restaurants (by some estimations, on average, Americans throw out 20% of the food that they buy) – meaning that we were able to curb waste through strong policies on recycling food, through powerful public awareness campaigns, and through food expiry tracking technology.
By cutting down on food portions and purchasing food more conscientiously, along with freezing food more, and planning meals better, we all – as individuals – also contributed to creating a better, more sustainable future when it comes to how we eat.
Making it happen
This is only what 2050 will look like if we all act now to prepare for the future we want to see. Here at XPRIZE we launched XPRIZE Feed the Next Billion on December 7, 2020 because we want to spark more options for meat alternatives – and we can’t wait to see what the teams that enter come up with. But there is so much more that can happen to bring about the food revolution. We’re on the cusp of it – so long as we reorganize our food systems with abundance, equity, and longevity in mind.
Register your team today at xprize.org/feed.