We have all heard the oft-repeated United Nations’ prediction for global population growth of about 9.2 billion people by 2050. And no one expects a reduction in population until after 2100. With more of us humans bustling around the planet, more food will need to be grown on the same, or even less, land. The alternative to greater food production is grisly – no one wants humans to die from hunger and malnutrition. To successfully produce sufficient food for everyone will require creative technologies and innovative approaches that will likely vary from region-to-region around the globe.

Here in the U.S. consumer opinions about food production are diverse, and understanding how consumers view the challenges and potential solutions facing food production systems is critical if we hope to feed ourselves and the world during this century.

In December 2014 a survey from Oklahoma State University reported on the food challenges of greatest concern to American consumers. About 23% of consumers felt that having affordable food was most important. Only 11% were concerned with producing sufficient food to meet the demands of a growing world population. Similarly, 10% of U.S. consumers were concerned with minimizing adverse environmental consequences of food production. Interestingly, inequitable distribution of food around the world was concerning to just 8% of American consumers. These results make me wonder to what extent we have grown more focused on ourselves here in the U.S. and less concerned with global food security.

Finally, when asked about the best approach to increase future food production, greater than 75% indicated that use of more “natural” farming practices would be better than “technological” solutions. Natural agricultural practices included local foods, organic farming, and unprocessed foods. Technology-based solutions would also include genetic engineering, optimized use of herbicides and pesticides, etc.

A Food & Health Survey conducted in 2012 by the International Food Information Council sheds additional light on this point. This survey reported that 58% of Americans give a lot of thought to the healthfulness of the foods they eat. About 54% felt that they would rather enjoy their food than worry about what’s in it. In other words, for many consumers too much scientific information tends to overwhelm rather than inform. And finally, half of Americans surveyed felt that it was easier to do their taxes than to figure out how to eat a healthy diet! These results and other surveys show that too often the typical US consumer is confused by the competing and often conflicting information on food safety and nutrition. 

A recent survey conducted by the USDA Economic Research Service explored consumer attitudes toward a quintessentially American food habit: eating out. Since 1929, the food purchased for consumption outside the home has increased from 13 to 43% of the average US household’s food budget. Fast food itself comprises about 3 to 4%-units of this amount and is chosen primarily–you guessed it--to save time for other activities. Americans spend a tremendous amount of money on food destined to be eaten outside the home at some sort of restaurant. Convenience is often the primary reason, and we see again that the U.S. consumer makes food choices that do not reflect those of the developing world.

Overall, we will need to produce more food particularly to feed the burgeoning population in the developing countries of the world. It is difficult to envision how the world’s entire population can be fed without application of the best technologies at hand. Although we in the developed world are facing very slow population growth and could conceivably meet our food needs with less productive systems, that is not a choice for the entire world. The bottom line is that we are the beneficiaries of the world’s most safe and productive food system, but we can’t let our fortunate position bias food production systems designed to feed the entire world.