The Empty Chair: Before we start this conversation by talking about how we are going to feed ourselves in 10 years, I would like to explain what the current situation of food systems is and what will happen if we continue with the inertia that we bring.
María Elena Varas: We have a challenge. By 2050 we will have to feed 9,500 million people on this planet, and several studies have indicated that as we continue to produce at this speed, and in this way, there will be a very negative effect on the environment.
But also, we are not going to be able to feed all those people in a way that is nutritious and healthy.
Therefore, 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 could food production change in the future?
María 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 they generate less carbon emissions, that they do not destroy the soils so that they can be used again, that they have a sustainable use of water.
Also a production that is aligned with climate change, because with changes in temperature and external shocks that exist in terms of climate, there is great pressure for this type of food.
The Empty Chair: Are we going to have more hydroponic crops or more organic crops?
María Elena Varas: There is a tendency, on the one hand, to 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 more specifically address livestock production there, for example. It changes a little depending on the type of crop and the geographical area.
The Empty Chair: Does that mean that the farmers of the future are going to be more technological?
María 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 environmentally friendly way. Otherwise, it is completely related to the use of the land that they themselves have.
The Empty Chair: Is anyone already doing that right now?
María 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 so that farmers can adopt these technologies? Because what we know is that the technologies exist and are there, but the problem is financing. So how can we generate change and transformation in order to finance the adoption of these technologies? And that is a great point on which we are working.
The Empty Chair: You also place a high value on consumers in this transformation of food systems.
María Elena Varas: Consumers have a fundamental role in terms of the demand they make for food. An effect is generated towards the field, as to what is produced. And there are different topics to tackle.
One is a matter of communication and recognition of the value of food in 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.
That is, that my products are from areas where deforestation has not been carried out, that my products are healthy, that they are not contaminated.
For which we also return to the topic of technology. Where can we use traceability and different technologies to be able to do that, make those changes, and be able to inform consumers?
The Empty Chair: Do you imagine that the consumer of the future before eating an apple is going to look at a little seal that tells him the origin of that apple, if they treat the workers well, if they deforest or do not deforest in that area?
María Elena Varas: Consumption in the future would ideally be that way, and in that case you would be fully empowering the consumer to make changes in the supply chain as well. That would be interesting and would be nice to see.
But also a consumer who may be able to say ‘I am going to diversify my diet’, I will admit 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 more responsible consumption for the environment and for health.
The Empty Chair: Younger people are becoming more vegan. Do you think that trend will continue?
María 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, beef.
In this sense, there are trends in other countries that generate some pressure on the production chain. To give you an example: the pressure China generates with its demand for livestock production in Brazil, from where meat is imported. So I think there will be different curves.
But I do believe that there is greater awareness, and that it will continue to generate greater awareness, of the importance of food in health. A tendency to move towards food as medicine.
The Empty Chair: Now one sees juices to cleanse the body, etc. Will that trend gain strength?
María Elena Varas: I think it is a trend that will gain more strength, because there are also specific interests to address these issues. The costs for the health and fiscal systems of the countries of the challenges generated by poor diet 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 policy. From that perspective, there should be a major change.
Businesses, from small to multinationals, are transitioning to products that appeal to the new consumer’s need to consume healthier, more health-positive foods.
The Empty Chair: Do you think that we are going to consume more and more local to be more friendly to the environment?
María 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 local. 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. food themes.
The Empty Chair: A few years ago it seemed that technology was going more towards the artificialization of food, than towards the organic. Is organic going to beat chemical?
María Elena Varas: I believe that one thing may exist alongside the other as long as the consumer remains as before. But to the degree that greater awareness and greater movement in the demand for this type of product 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 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 in 10 years?
María 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’s not cheap, but such a diet would address the needs of the body and the planet.
The Empty Chair: If that diet is what is imposed, a country like Colombia would have great opportunities.
María 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?
María Elena Varas: I believe that there are great opportunities to align various initiatives that are taking place in the country to generate better and greater opportunities for rural areas, supporting practices that are sustainable through technical training and monitoring systems.
At the same time, being able to work in crops that support the transition to more nutritious and healthy foods, incorporating native products or others that are important for the development of the country: certain types of mango, avocado, Amazon 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 throughout the food chain to have less loss 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 going to continue affecting crops.
The Empty Chair: In Colombia, do you lose a lot of food?
María 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; for 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 adequate way, and on time.
The Empty Chair: And the last question that cannot be missed: How does the pandemic affect this future?
María Elena Varas: Well, the truth is that the pandemic has been a reminder that there is much to do here, that there is an important issue in terms of food safety that needs 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 in more resilient systems.
A while ago I heard an interview that I found interesting, it said: “five years ago what we should 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.