“We must learn to talk sensibly about food, committing ourselves to accepting more complexity, less radicalism, and the wisdom of compromise.” James E. McWilliams, author of Just Food, 2009.

Some time ago while I was living in Raleigh, North Carolina I went to the nearby grocery store to pick up one or two staples I’d run out of. To my surprise, I found several of the store shelves to be bare of the usually abundant goods, especially bottled water. Instinctively I felt a slight panic until I recalled that the weather forecast had called for a major snowstorm the next day. Being Canadian, I didn’t think much of it but soon realized that this was a classic case of southerners over-reacting to the prospect of snow, which happened about two or three days a year while I was there. With this insight, I felt assured that the entire store would be replenished within a few days, at most.

The experience remains an important reminder that I, like many North American consumers, take much of our great access to good food for granted. Yet, every time there are high and rapid spikes in food prices like in 2008, it deepens concerns about the future of food. It raises questions about whether business as usual will be enough when limited natural resources will be required to feed the 9 billion people that is projected for year 2050.

Challenge: The Future of Food

The future of food is one of the complex societal challenge areas of the MaRS Solutions Lab. Over the past several months, the Solutions Lab has been teaming up with the Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience (WISIR) on sustainable food systems. Solutions Lab is helping WISIR to beta-test their social innovation lab model by engaging the tender fruit sector in Ontario. As part of this work we have been reading a lot of literature on food systems and speaking to several stakeholders along the value chain in Ontario. We’re just at the tail end of the research phase and are only beginning to appreciate just how complex are the many issues that diverse stakeholders care about when it comes to food.

Snapshot of an early attempt by the research team mapping out the varied issues around sustainable food systems.
Snapshot of an early attempt by the research team mapping out the varied issues around sustainable food systems.


We’ve also come to learn about the many inspired initiatives in Canada that are trying to create a better food system. Visions of a future food system has been proposed by industry, agriculture, government and citizens:

Each of these reports provides a compelling vision for a better food future, and outlines some of the key changes that are needed for us to get there. As a collection, they demonstrate the diversity of values within the Canadian food system and the tensions in how different stakeholders prioritize those values.  For instance, A People’s Food Policy clearly prioritizes the citizens’ ability to influence and help shape the food system they desire, starting with the most vulnerable communities. On the other hand, the Canadian Food Strategy places greatest emphasis on a developing a competitive food industry. Yet it should be noted that perhaps more than ever before, all sides care a lot more today about the health, environmental and food security issues facing Canadians overall. And perhaps most importantly, they highlight the fact that many Canadians are stepping up to the call for action, wherever they may be in the system. Both the Municipal Food Policy Entrepreneurs and CAPI’s Strategic Report emphasize a systems approach to show that everyone who has a stake in the food system actively plays a role – consciously or not – in creating a better system or getting in the way of it. This means we all have a role to play whether we are policy makers, public service agents, academic and applied researchers, industry, private capital, entrepreneurs, non-governmental organizations and consumers.

If the future of food is something that you’re starting to think about, but are not sure where to begin when it comes to the broad range of issues, here are some titles I’ve found to be quick and accessible reads that provide food for thought (sorry, but bad puns seem to be a hazard of researching topics in food systems):

  • Robert Paarlberg (2010). Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford University Press. Written and refined through a process of teaching an undergraduate seminar course on food systems, this book presents many of the key issues related to the global food system in brief question and answer format. This format makes it easy to skip around to read the questions that concern you most at the moment. Some of the answers can seem a bit over simplified, but it still provides a great entry point for introducing a bit of the historical context and more than one side to key issues (e.g., green revolution, agricultural subsidies, genetically modified organisms, etc.).
  • Sarah Elton. (2013). Consumed: Food for a Finite Planet. Harper Collins Canada. This book is probably the most enjoyable read among the three, written by a journalist who brings a Canadian lens to looking at the global food system. The best aspect of this book is the ‘food system stories’ that Elton gathers from around the world, with a critical eye to overly industrial food systems, and a clear optimism for finding a better way forward.
  • James E. McWilliams. (2009). Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly. Little Brown and Company. I think the best thing I like about this book is that the author turns a critical lens on himself and the locavore movement he had wholeheartedly embraced for many years. He proposes that we aim for a “golden mean of food production” that is not limited to conversations about how far food travels but rather think more deeply about the impact of food choices we make.

If you’ve been thinking about the future of food for quite a while, please share what good reads you have to recommend.