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Future Food: What Will it Be?

The future is real and tangible, made every day by the actions of people and communities. As a futurist, this is core to the way I think about tomorrow: It all begins with people.

Let’s look at the future of consumers. Who will buy the crops and products you produce 15 years from now? What fads will consumers follow? Where will they live?

Consumer trends are always in motion, so you should consider a range of futures: the Probable, the Possible, and the Preferable.

The Probable

According to the United Nations, by the year 2050, 84% of the world’s people will live in cities. As a planet, we’re still becoming less rural and more urban. Generations of people will have never seen a farm or met a farmer.

The U.N. also says by that time, there will be 41 megacities in the world with populations over 10 million people. Only one of those, the New York City metro area, will be in North America. 

Leading economists are also quite sure those future consumers will have less spending power than last century. Income inequalities could rival those of two and three centuries ago.

In a probable vision, consumers will be scattered across the globe, live in cities, and have less spending power than what you’ve known in your lifetime. 

That’s not necessarily all gloom and doom for your farm. In this probable vision, there are more consumers for farm products, they are collected in single destinations, and they spend their money smartly.

The Possible

In this vision, consumers have an understanding of where food comes from and a firm connection to the land. They also have a willingness to pay for food that meets their expectations. 

In the last 10 years, consumers everywhere have become more interested in their food. “The local food movement saved my farm,” an East Coast apple farmer told me once. That happened because, in this future vision, consumers want to know who grew their food and how. 

In short, they want the full story. Whether they are called foodies, environmentalists, local-vores, or organic nuts, their way of thinking and buying could reshape the production and economics of agriculture.

“My hope is that consumers retain a connection to the soil,” says Alex Webb of the non-profit Shelburne Farms. 

“I can see a future where large commodity farming moves slightly more toward stewardship of the land,” he says. “I could also see small regional farms becoming economically sustainable and viable.”

In a possible vision, consumers are more active as participants in their food system.

The Preferable

Consider a real-world consumer who is a mix of the probable and the possible – a preferable vision somewhere in between these extremes.

For example, the millennial generation includes anyone born roughly between 1981 and 2000. There are nearly 80 million of them, and they spend up to $1 trillion a year now. 

They’ve grown up in a world that looks very different than previous generations. Coming through the recent Great Recession, they’ve spent half of their adult lives with a dismal economic outlook. Many expect not to earn more than their parents, and this affects their purchase decisions.

“Living affordably and trying to climb higher than your parents were once considered complimentary ambitions,” writes Dereck Thompson in a 2015 Atlantic article. “Today, young Americans increasingly have to choose one or the other. They can either settle in affordable but stagnant metros, or they can live in economically vibrant cities where housing prices eat much of their paychecks.”

You would assume the spending habits of millennials would be based mostly on price, but it turns out this isn’t true. They spend to make a difference.

Jed Davis of Cabot Creamery, who has spoken in many schools about his farm, says this generation sees that they can use their money to make a difference, no matter if they have a little or a lot.

In summary, the probable, possible, and preferable give you three lenses to view future consumers. The reality is, all three things will probably happen, and each can be used to impact the decisions you make.

Who are These People?

Boomers

Born: 1946-1964

Age: 52-70

How many: 77 million

Also Called: Rock ’n’ Roll Generation, Me Generation

Outlook: Optimistic and driven; live to work

  • Still dominate the financial world, over $2 trillion in annual spending power, over 40% of total consumer demand
  • Not very brand loyal
  • Committed to work, employer loyal
  • 27% regularly eat organic food
  • 34% use new recipes
  • 14% use how-to cooking videos  

Gen X

Born: 1965-1980

Age: 36-51

How many: 60 million

Also called: Debt Generation, Bridge Generation

Noted for: Transition Generation, moved from TV dominance to computer technology

Outlook: Entrepreneurial and individualistic; work to live

Millenials

Born: 1981-2000

Age: 16-35

How many: 80 million

Also called: Generation Y, 9/11 Generation, Echo Boomers

Noted for: Social responsibility, trend setters, skeptics of everything

Outlook: Brand loyal but not employer loyal; change companies and careers often; work to make a difference

  • Will be largest consumer spenders in history, already spending near $1 trillion a year, growing for next several decades
  • Have never known a world without computers, grew up with the Internet
  • Information and socialization come largely over Internet
  • They love – and often live - food
  • 62% regularly eat organic food
  • 61% use new recipes
  • 42% use how-to cooking videos

Not Just a California Thing

1 “American women want to go back to a simpler time when food was minimally processed, when the ingredient list was understandable, and when many products came from local farms/manufacturers.”

Number of women for whom minimally processed food is important or very important in their food-purchasing decisions:

  • 2013: 59%    
  • 2015: 71%

2 “Consumers want the idyllic past of simple, local, and natural food. Yet, they also expect convenience and diverse product choices. These desires now largely transcend age and income.”

Women who say locally grown is important or very important to them:

  • 2013: 54%
  • 2015: 65%

3 The desire for pure, simple, and local food is now mainstream. In fact, the obsession with buying fresh, organic, and local food is currently most notable outside of the millennial generation.  

Share of all women who say natural or organic is important or very important:

  • 2013: 43%
  • 2015: 55%

Source: Wolfe Research 2015 Consumer Survey: Food Goes Back to the Future

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