The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has released a report that looks at how major global drivers like economic growth, changing consumer behavior and consumption patterns, a growing global population, and the climate crisis will shape food safety in tomorrow’s world. The idea of this long-term thinking exercise is to help policy-makers anticipate any future concerns, rather than react to them once they have already materialized.
“We are in an era where technological and scientific innovations are revolutionizing the agrifood sector, including the food safety arena. It is important for countries to keep pace with these advances, particularly in a critical area like food safety, and for FAO to provide proactive advice on the application of science and innovation,” said FAO Chief Scientist Ismahane Elouafi.
The report, "Thinking about the future of food safety: A foresight report," maps out some of the most important emerging issues in food and agriculture, with a focus on food safety implications, which are increasingly on the minds of consumers around the world. It adopts a foresight approach based on the idea that the roots of how the future may play out are already present today in the form of early signs. Monitoring these signs through the systematic gathering of intelligence increases the likelihood that policy-makers will be better prepared to tackle emerging opportunities and challenges.
The report covers eight broad categories of drivers and trends: climate change, new food sources and production systems, the growing number of farms and vegetable gardens in our cities, changing consumer behavior, the circular economy, microbiome science (which studies the bacteria, viruses, and fungi inside our guts and around us), technological and scientific innovation, and food fraud.
Some of the report’s findings include:
- Increased exposure to contaminants – The impact of changing weather patterns and temperatures has been receiving much attention, and FAO recently issued a report on the implications of climate change on food safety in 2020. Recent evidence points to a severe impact of climate change on various biological and chemical contaminants in food by altering their virulence, occurrence, and distribution. Traditionally cooler zones are becoming warmer and more conducive to agriculture, opening up new habitats for agricultural pests and toxic fungal species. For instance, aflatoxins, which were traditionally considered a problem mainly in some parts of Africa, are now established in the Mediterranean.
- Jellyfish, algae, and insects – Edible varieties of jellyfish have been consumed for generations in some parts of Asia. They are low in carbohydrates and high in protein content, but tend to spoil easily at ambient temperatures and can serve as vectors of pathogenic bacteria that can adversely affect human health. Seaweed consumption is also spreading beyond Asia and is expected to continue growing, in part because of its nutritional value and sustainability (seaweeds do not need fertilizers to grow, and help combat ocean acidification). One potential source of concern is their ability to accumulate high levels of heavy metals like arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury. Interest in edible insects is also rising in response to growing awareness of the environmental impacts of food production. While they can be a good source of protein, fiber, fatty acids, and micronutrients like iron, zinc, manganese, and magnesium, insects can also harbor foodborne contaminants and can provoke allergic reactions in some people.
- Plant-based alternatives – More and more people are becoming vegan or vegetarian, often citing concerns for animal welfare and livestock’s impact on the environment. This has led to the development of various plant-based alternatives to meat, with global sales for such products expected to surge. As plant-based diets expand, more awareness about introducing food safety concerns, such as allergens from foods not commonly consumed before, is needed.
- Cell-based meat – Winston Churchill’s prophecy that one day “we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium” is becoming a reality, with dozens of companies globally known to be developing cell-based steaks, beef burgers or chicken nuggets. Examples of potential concerns include the use of animal-based serum in the culture media, which may introduce both microbiological and chemical contamination.
- New technologies – A veritable technological revolution is transforming our agrifood systems, helping us produce more with less. Examples include smart packaging that extends the shelf life of food products, blockchain technology that ensures food can be traced along supply chains, and 3D printers that produce sweets and even “meat-like” textures using plant-based ingredients. As with all emerging technologies, there are opportunities and challenges. For such technologies to be made available to all, it will be crucial to promote standards and best practices, access to reliable and curated reference databases, communication of lessons learned, and transparency in data-sharing across stakeholders..
In a rapidly changing world, foresight is more important than ever. By sharing its intelligence, FAO aims to support countries and regions that lack adequate resources to implement their own foresight programs.