Knowing what the future holds is never easy, and as often as not our predictions can turn out to be quite wrong.
But some things we do know. A sugary fatty diet with too little exercise will make us obese, with a high chance of ending up with diabetes. If many of us follow this path the health costs to society will be sore. Constantly cropping soils and not returning nutrients will lead to yield declines. Excessively over fishing will cause fisheries to collapse. Poor nutrition in childhood will lead to stunting with lifelong impacts.
If we piece together what we currently know about the ways we are consuming and producing food there are very good reasons to be very concerned, even highly alarmed about the long term implications. There is growing widespread recognition that a massive transformation is needed in our food systems to tackle hunger, enable good health, protect the environment and ensure long-term food security.
Yet, many aspects of our food systems are trending the wrong way, and our efforts to change this seem badly aligned with the likely future consequences of not taking sufficient action soon enough.
Now already a decade ago, the global food price crisis of 2008 highlighted the social and political risks when things go wrong in the food system. In part, this prompted the UK Governments 2011 Foresight Study on the “Future of Food and Farming”. The outcomes of which led the UK Chief Scientific Advisor to warn that the world was heading towards a perfect storm of increased demand for food, resource depletion and negative impacts of climate change.
But setting our food systems on a more sustainable and resilient path is a complex challenge with many interacting factors from local to global scales. Change will require concerted and coordinated efforts from government and business. But what will motivate leaders to drive change and what will motivate citizens to demand change. And if there is such motivation for change how does one know the best thing to do.
This is where foresight comes in. Not to try and predict the future, but rather to intelligently engage citizens and leaders in a better understanding of what is currently going on, what the future consequence could be and what might be alternative pathways with more desirable outcomes.
Intelligent perspectives on the future requires science – to get the best data we can on what is currently happening; to explore and understand relationships between different parts of the system; to model how things could change; and, to invent new technologies and ways of doing things that would be an improvement.
However, while foresight needs science, foresight is not only about science. Foresight requires informed dialogue between people, and it hinges on discussions about values and ethics, what are desirable futures and how these might be realised.
Foresight4Food is an emerging initiative supported by a widening group of international organisations, food systems researchers, business players and civil society organisations. The collective aim is to enhance foresight and scenario analysis for the global food system. Those involved recognise that while there is much food systems research, foresight, scenario analysis and modelling going on it is often fragmented. There is a need for better synthesis, and for improvements in how food system changes are explained and visualised. And, better connections are needed between science and processes of policy dialogue, business engagement and societal learning.
Jim Woodhill – Foresight4Food Initiative Lead
Honorary Research Associate, Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford