The Empty Chair: I would like you to explain to us what the current situation of food systems is and what will happen if we continue with the inertia that we bring, before we start this conversation talking about how we are going to feed ourselves in 10 years.
Maria Elena Varas: We have a challenge. By 2050 we will have to feed 9.5 billion people on this planet, and several studies have indicated that as long as we continue to produce at this speed, and in this way, there will be a very negative effect on the environment.
But, in addition, we are not going to be able to feed all those people in a way that is nutritious and healthy.
So, here is a vision and a push and a whole agenda to be able to change the way we produce these foods, how they are distributed and how to empower consumers so that they can make better decisions regarding the demand for food.
The Empty Chair: Given these trends, how might food production change in the future?
Maria Elena Varas: Production cannot be viewed in a fragmented way, without associating it with demand. That is why we are here looking at production systems that are kinder to the environment; that generate less carbon emissions, that do not destroy soils so that they can be used again, that have a sustainable use of water.
Also a production that is aligned with climate change, because with the changes in temperature, and the external shocks that exist in climatic terms, there is great pressure for this type of food.
The Empty Chair: Are we going to have more hydroponic crops or more organic crops?
Maria Elena Varas: There is a tendency to, on the one hand, make better use of inputs such as fertilizers, for example, which affect less land use and water pollution.
On the other hand, productive systems that make better use of the land in terms of not encouraging deforestation.
There are initiatives in Colombia that are interesting, from that perspective, and address livestock production more specifically there, for example. It changes a bit depending on the type of crop and the geographical area.
The Empty Chair: Does that mean that the peasants of the future are going to be more technological?
Maria Elena Varas: Absolutely. The idea would be to be able to empower small and medium farmers to adopt different technologies and innovations that allow them to produce in a more efficient and also more environmentally friendly way. That for the rest, is completely related to the use of the soils that they themselves have.
The Empty Chair: Is there someone already doing that right now?
Maria Elena Varas: We have examples from Asia, in India, some in Africa, in Latin America too, where drones, new computer technologies, blockchain have been used. I believe that is the future.
But the big question is, how can we support the creation of a favorable financial environment for farmers to adopt these technologies? Because what we know is that the technologies exist and are there, but the problem is financing. So, how to generate a change and a transformation to be able to finance the adoption of these technologies? And that’s a great point that we are working on.
The Empty Chair: You, too, place great value on consumers in this transformation of food systems.
Maria Elena Varas: Consumers play a fundamental role in terms of their demand for food. An effect is generated towards the field, as to what is produced. And there are different issues to address.
One is a matter of communication and recognition of the value that food has on the health of the person. Being able to work around, for example, the issue of obesity, and the issue of those who do not have enough food. That is a fundamental issue.
The other issue is empowering consumers so they can know where their products come from. And therefore, that the decisions they make are informed from the perspective of nutrition, but also from that of the environment.
In other words, that my products are from areas where deforestation has not been done, that my products are healthy, that they are not contaminated.
For which we also return to the subject of technology. Where can we use traceability and different technologies to be able to do that, to make those changes, and to be able to inform consumers?
The Empty Chair: Do you imagine that the consumer of the future before eating an apple will look at a stamp that tells them the origin of that apple, if they treat the workers well, if they deforest or not deforest in that area?
Maria Elena Varas: Consumption in the future would ideally be that way, and in that case you would be completely empowering the consumer to make changes in the supply chain as well. That would be interesting and good to see.
But also a consumer who may be able to say ‘I am going to diversify my diet’, I will recognize that I have to move towards a diet more similar to what the EAT-Lancet report published last year, in terms of lower consumption of meat, higher consumption of grains, fruits and vegetables. That it can also support a more responsible consumption for the environment and for health.
The Empty Chair: Younger people are becoming more vegan. Do you think that trend is going to continue?
Maria Elena Varas: I could not tell you, because the truth is that the trend we see in China, for example, and especially in countries where greater purchasing power is generated with economic development, the trend is precisely to consume more meat. There is an association of economic stratum with the consumption of pork and beef.
In this sense, there are trends in other countries that generate pressure in the production chain. To give you an example: the pressure generated by China with its demand for livestock production that takes place in Brazil, from where they import meat. So I think there are going to be different curves.
But I do believe that there is greater awareness, and that greater awareness will continue to be generated, of the importance of food in health. A trend towards food as medicine.
The Empty Chair: Now one sees juices to cleanse the body, etc. Will that trend gain strength?
Maria Elena Varas: I think it is a trend that is going to gain more strength, because there are also specific interests to address these issues. The costs for the health system, and fiscal of the countries of the challenges that are generated by the bad feeding are astronomical.
The levels of diabetes in developed countries, of obesity that are also seen in Latin America, where it really is an epidemic at this point, are a great challenge in terms of public policies. From that perspective, there should be a major change.
Companies, from small to multinational companies, are making a transition towards products that appeal to the new consumer’s need to consume healthier, more health-positive foods.
The Empty Chair: Do you think that every time we are going to consume more local to be more friendly with the environment?
Maria Elena Varas: Of course, precisely, there are several visions as to how this future could be, and I would say that there is a vision in terms of consuming more locally. Partly because there is a carbon footprint issue that is important to address.
But also, a tendency to have access to food that is fresher; that have been produced in areas where the community and the local economy are also being supported.
Something that is also important, for example, is how we can do that from the perspective of small vertical farms and everything that is food production in cities, which is also a huge issue in the context of all the actors that we are in the food themes.
The Empty Chair: A few years ago it seemed that technology was going more towards the artificialization of food, than towards organic. Is organic going to beat chemical?
Maria Elena Varas: I believe that one thing may exist alongside the other as long as the consumer remains as it is until now. But to the extent that greater awareness and movement in the demand for these types of products is generated, there will be a change there.
Organic, 100 percent pure organic, has specific challenges also when we are talking about international trade and other issues, but I believe that it will generate a positive change, ideally, in terms of local consumption and the more organic consumption of fruits. and vegetables. The food basket today is highly based on processed and packaged products.
The Empty Chair: What do you think that food basket will be like in 10 years?
Maria Elena Varas: I can tell you what I would like to see. I would like to see more nuts, almonds, more fruit and more vegetables. And also more variety of each, only one serving of meat a week. And if I’m not mistaken, one or two servings of fish a week, which is the diet recommended by the EAT-Lancet report. It is not cheap, but such a diet would address the needs of the body and the planet.
The Empty Chair: If that diet is the one that is imposed, a country like Colombia would have great opportunities.
Maria Elena Varas: Justly. In the case of Colombia, with the wealth it has in terms of biodiversity and the number of native products, it could lead to a healthier system. There are various initiatives that are working on this issue in the country.
The Empty Chair: Although you are Chilean, you know Colombia well. How do you think rural life can change here, which has not been easy in recent decades?
Maria Elena Varas: I believe that there are great opportunities to align various initiatives that are going on in the country to generate better and greater opportunities for rural areas, supporting practices that are sustainable through technical training systems, monitoring.
Also, at the same time, to be able to work on crops that support the transition towards more nutritious and healthy foods, incorporating native products or others that are important for the development of the country: certain types of mango, avocado, Amazonian cocoa and other products that in this minute I forgot the name because they are very typical of Colombia. I think there is a possibility there.
And the other thing, which I think there is an important possibility, is in terms of being able to generate more investment in infrastructure that can help these small producers.
In short, helping along the entire food chain to reduce losses and waste, which is a great challenge for Colombian production and will continue to be a great challenge as we continue to see issues of climate change that are to continue affecting the crops.
The Empty Chair: In Colombia, is a lot of food lost?
Maria Elena Varas: Yes, before it can reach the warehouse and be distributed to the points of sale. Many times due to lack of capacity of cold storage mechanisms; due to road infrastructure problems; by transportation issues; different aspects for which it would be important to generate more investment so that these foods can reach the points of sale, or the processing points in an appropriate way, and on time.
The Empty Chair: And the last question that cannot be missed: how does the pandemic affect this future?
Maria Elena Varas: Well, the truth is that the pandemic has been a reminder that there is much to be done here, that there is an important issue in terms of food safety that must continue to be addressed. That is, the point of putting food on the table of people, beyond any other type of agenda, and the importance of continuing to work on more resilient systems.
Some time ago I heard an interview that seemed interesting to me, it said: “five years ago what should we have done to avoid what has happened to us today on the subject of food”, and perhaps it would be good to think then, what can we do today to avoid what could be another external shock in five or 10 years.