Five more global food trends for 2015

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This is going to be the busiest year ever for global food movements. Ten issues are ready for prime time.

I already reviewed five of these -- the rebellion of underpaid food producers, empathy for livestock animals, appreciation for the life-force and probiotics behind food, the central role of youth in food movements and a rising swell of food politics.

Today, I rush through the last five.

The sixth global food megatrend is that food production will henceforth join forces with the urban revolution. It was a first in 2007 when the majority of the world's people lived in cities. Less than a decade later and even more momentous, over half of the world's farms are now in or close to cities.

Urbiculture -- if I may coin a new term -- takes many forms.

In the Netherlands, second largest food exporter after the U.S., high-value flower and veggie production, often under glass, is done by experts who rarely live an hour away from a world-class port or tourist town.

In Russia, about half the food comes from family-run "dachas" -- summer cottages where grandparents and grandchildren grow, fish, forage and preserve mainstays of the urban diet over the winter.

In Cuba, hundreds of city-based co-op organic farms kept the Revolution well-fed, despite the 1989 collapse of sponsors from the old Soviet Union, and a longstanding blockade --only ended this year -- of food and equipment from the U.S.

In Las Vegas, where food is now too important to gamble on, "indoor agriculture" is getting a hearing. On medium-rise factory roofs in Montreal, Laval, New York and Chicago, production records are being broken -- 120 tonnes of greens a year from a rooftop acre in Laval, for example.

Here's the latest from Japan -- a football field-sized production centre in a former factory site that sells 10,000 heads of fresh lettuce a day with 80 per cent less food waste and 99 per cent less water than the same volume of food grown in traditional fields.

It's not just mobile phones and computers that can be miniaturized in cities, it turns out. The tradition of rural farms -- a legacy of the low social standing and low productivity of traditional agriculture, and a response to the demand for cheap grains for factory workers, made possible by underpaid farmers on low-cost land taken from Indigenous peoples -- is hard to maintain in a world where cheap carbs no longer define popular diets. 

An Environmental Research Letters publication based on satellite measurements shows 456 million hectares being farmed inside or within 20 kilometres of cities.

The days when government agriculture departments operate as departments of rural votes and fiefdoms of agribusiness pressure groups no longer have a demographic basis.

The seventh global food megatrend is causing some furor: food waste is at an all-time high. The FAO values food lost to rot (more common in the Global South, where refrigeration is lacking) or to waste (more common in the Global North, where people buy more than they eat) at $427 billion a year.

This year, we learn how $427 billion barely scratches the surface of real costs. About 20 per cent of produce is culled at the farm because of odd shapes. Meat from less glamorous body parts that pork loin suffers the same fate. Then come throwaway containers -- a million coffee cups a day garbaged in Toronto, for example. Then come the coffee grounds and other residues that end up creating global warming emissions in landfills.

Landfills are where the easiest stomach-wrenching photo shoots are taken, even though air and water take the brunt of food garbage. 

Five trillion small pieces of plastic weighing 269,000 tonnes are gathered in five major clusters such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, according to the first exhaustive study, posted by science journal PLOS One in December, 2014.

Such levels of waste challenge what science journalist Jonathon Latham calls the conveniently "uncontested truth" about the food system -- that looming scarcity of food forces us to rely on toxic pesticides, untested technologies and global monopolies to make sure we can "feed the world."

Now that waste is out in the open, that myth-take in popular understanding can't be sustained.

The eighth global food trend is the sudden prominence of agroecology, once associated with Indigenous peasants, who grow many crops on small acreages and who share a "commons" of forests, meadows and marshes to find fodder for animals, fish, mushrooms and medicinal plants.

In September, Dr Hilal Elver issued her first statement as UN rapporteur on the human right to food. She said agroecology alone could feed the world because it linked care for food, the poor and the environment.

The FAO has begun referring positively to agroecology, which is supported by the peasant movement Via Campesina. The term is also catching on among Global North ranchers who feature pasture-raised beef, pork, chicken, eggs and milk.

The ninth global food trend: Seven years after "locavore" was lionized as Oxford's word of the year, the many facets of local food will continue to influence food culture in the 2014-2015 seasons.

Local is proving to pack a lot of meanings. Originally, it referred to the physical and cultural "terroir," provenance and flair of a food, as in a wine from a particular region. According to a recent survey of 1,300 chef members by the U.S.-based National Restaurant Association, the top-ranking passions of chefs are for local meat, local produce, environmental sustainability and child nutrition.

Local was given public policy significance shortly after 2007, when attached to a new understanding of the "multifunctionality" of food -- its ability to not only fill tummies, but also enhance local jobs, keep rural areas vital, and reduce transportation emissions, for example.

In an impersonal world dominated by schlock, local was the avatar for authentic and artisanal, most explosively so in the case of craft beer. Even true blue Ontario may gather courage to end the near-monopoly granted to foreign beer companies at the expense of local crafters.

The tenth global food trend this year is rising obesity, rates of which have doubled since 1980. The global costs of carrying 3.4 million premature deaths among 2.1 billion obese people come up just behind the costs of smoking, armed conflict and terrorism, and just ahead of the costs of alcoholism.

Welcome to the new word associations of Big Food, an image-maker's nightmare.

The rise of obesity synchs well with the decline in capacity and sense of responsibility of nation states. The major 2014 report on obesity came not from a government, but a consulting company, McKinsey Global, in partnership with an esteemed British medical journal, the Lancet, funded by philanthrocapitalist Bill Gates. 

The report, Overcoming Obesity, outlined 44 public policy interventions that could reduce obesity and save governments billions in healthcare costs. It's a long list, but all proved themselves cost-effective.

Be prepared for the roll-out of over 40 measures, if not by conventional governments or opposition parties, then elsewhere.

According to a December editorial of the Lancet, health professionals must sensitize themselves to the "power, incentives, institutions, and ideas that shape policy" and mainstream "applied political economy analysis. "

In the food world of 2015, that prescription is just what the doctor ordered.

Wayne Roberts is the author of The No-Nonsense Guide to World Food.

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