Global Food Supply Challenges Have Some Solutions

At a Glance

  • Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, Memphis Meats founder Uma Valeti say scalability for cell-based and plant-based meat will help fill gaps in global food supply
  • Food companies increasingly willing to self-disrupt in order to meet sustainability challenges

Doomsayers often worry about how everyone will be fed as the world population adds billions more people over the next few decades.  UN estimates have total population growing to 10 billion by 2050.  The challenge is complicated by climate change, which some fear may reduce arable land and disrupt water resources.

Worries about feeding a growing population are nothing new.  Back in the early 1800s, the economist and cleric, Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus, expressed similar fears about how the world would feed itself as the population grew, and his writings earned economics the moniker of the dismal science.  More recently, Paul Erhlich in his 1968 book the The Population Bomb (Ballatine), expressed similar fears of starvation only a few decades away.  And many others through time have sounded this doomsday alarm for agriculture’s ability to feed the world.

The panel on the Future of Food, moderated by former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, at CME Group’s Global Financial Leadership Conference (GFLC) this November took a much more optimistic view.  John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, commented on the amazing degree of innovation in the food supply chain from precision farming to aqua-culture to plant-based faux meat, to new developments in growing meat from stem cells.  Indeed, Mackey noted in the United States that food had never been cheaper, with only around 10% of disposable income going to food compared to 30% in times past.

Duck Grown From Cells

Dr. Uma Valeti, Co-founder and CEO of Memphis Meats, and a panel member, explained how growing meat from cells could be done in a matter of weeks with a dramatic reduction in the carbon footprint.  Panelist, and author of Fate of Food (Harmony Books, 2019), Amanda Little, had even visited Memphis Meats in Silicon Valley and taste-tested duck grown from cells and testified that it tasted exactly like duck.  Meat from growing cells has a long way to go in terms of scalability at an affordable price, but the proof of concept is already here.

One of the more interesting points of discussion was how meat production companies are changing their focus.  They are evolving from meat producers to seeing themselves in the protein business, willing to invest in potentially disruptive technologies, such as growing meat from cells, or embracing plant-based faux meat, to stay current with innovations that could change their competitive landscape.  In effect, companies are willing now to be involved in self-disruption, keenly appreciating  that the speed of innovation has never been more rapid.

Of course, the agricultural sector has always been one to adapt.  There is the old farmer maxim, that the cure for high prices is high prices and the cure for low prices is low prices.  The market system with robust price discovery, such as occurs on exchanges operated by the CME Group, sends powerful signals that feed capital allocation, adaptions, and innovations.

Bluford (Blu) Putnam has served as Managing Director and Chief Economist of CME Group since May 2011. He is responsible for leading economic analysis on global financial markets by identifying emerging trends, evaluating economic factors and forecasting their impact. Prior to joining CME Group, Putnam gained more than 35 years of experience in the financial services industry with concentrations in central banking, investment research and portfolio management. He has authored five books on international finance.

Additional Recent Articles in Leaders