Using foresight to examine the global food system

Senior scientist observes new breed of cress sprouts optimized for consumption in greenhouse

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Based on a series of foresight exercises for the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA), researchers developed a global food systems map to illustrate macro- and micro-themes that could have a positive or negative impact on the global food system, a map of systemic interdependencies to help the FSA explore potential ‘flash points’ or cascading impacts, and a framework for future action consisting of eight major challenges and the tools and approaches that could help the FSA achieve its goals.

Background

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) is responsible for ensuring food safety and authenticity in the UK. It endeavours to provide consumers with access to an affordable, healthy diet while being able to make informed choices about what they eat, now and in the future. To do this effectively, the FSA needs a long-term perspective on the global food system.

Goals

The FSA commissioned RAND Europe to conduct foresight exercises in relation to the specific aims of the FSA and the wider global food system. The study helped to establish a baseline for the FSA’s potential future foresight and horizon scanning work and operated as a test of an approach that the FSA could implement to enable ongoing capabilities in this area.

Methodology

The study used a bespoke horizon-scanning and prioritisation approach, combined with a Three Horizons foresight method involving a review of available literature as well as a series of interviews and an expert workshop to identify the overarching themes and subthemes of most relevance to the FSA.

Findings

Mapping the global food system

The global food system is a complex policy space with many interdependent and interconnected features. We developed a global food systems map to illustrate macro- and micro-themes that could have a positive or negative impact on the global food system. These themes constitute a risk, an opportunity, or both to the UK food system.

New technologies and changing behaviours can have consequences on the food system. Eight themes for further investigation emerged from the study that are of most relevance to the FSA: alternative food production methods and technologies, alternative proteins, consumer demand, contaminants, synthetic biology, genomics, packaging and food waste, and sensing and data-driven decision making.

Mapping systemic interdependencies

Food systems are complex systems that are, in turn, interdependent with other complex systems, such as health, energy, climate and agriculture systems, comprising many actors, relationships and processes as well as difficult-to-predict events. We developed a map of systemic interdependencies that captured this complexity, but that was capable of conveying information ‘at a glance’. The map serves as a tool to help place specific issues in the context of a wider food systems network and to quickly identify pathways through which they could have an impact on food safety and authenticity. The map could help the FSA explore potential ‘flash points’ or cascading impacts, where a shock or solution to one issue may have wider repercussions to neighbouring and even distantly related issues.

Framework for future action

Finally, we developed a framework for future action consisting of eight major challenges including climate change, consumer trust, food waste and packaging, international trade, nutrition, provenance and traceability, skills and workforce, and technology acceptance. The framework does not present an exhaustive set of challenges, tools and goals, but, rather, aims to challenge stakeholders to consider how existing and emerging tools could be used to reach an idealised food system, consisting of ‘considered consumers’, ‘receptive industry’ and a ‘supportive system’.