Thinking About the Future of Food Safety

A Foresight Report from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)

As the world population is expected to exceed 9.7 billion by 2050, the food safety concerns we confront are constantly evolving. The need to stay current with these dynamics and transition from a reactive to a proactive strategy in food safety management is a must. Since the early 1960s, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has been conducting long-term evaluations of the projections for food security and agriculture to address the multiple issues that are being faced in the food sector.

Thinking About the Future of Food Safety


The FAO is a specialized agency of the United Nations that leads international efforts to defeat hunger. Their goal is to achieve food security for all and make sure that people have regular access to high-quality food to lead active and healthy lives. In 1970, FAO produced "Provisional Indicative World Plan for Agricultural Development: A Synthesis and Analysis of Factors Relevant to World, Regional, and National Agricultural Development", to help analysts and policy-makers understand regional and global food and agricultural trends. In 2017, FAO produced "The Future of Food and Agriculture - Trends and Issues", to comprehend 21st century agri-food system problems. The analysis highlighted 10 food security challenges and 15 global trends for the future.

The FAO's 2018 report on "The Future of Food and Agriculture - Alternative Pathways to 2050" analyzed global food and agricultural concerns and how addressing or leaving them unresolved affects agri-food system sustainability. Furthermore, world leaders stressed the right to safe and healthy food during the 1996 World Food Summit by imposing that transforming agriculture will sustainably feed the population. The UN Food Systems Summit 2021, on the other hand, focused on opportunities, challenges, and risks to our agri-food systems to build a better world and avoid shocks and disruptions.

Moreover, FAO's food safety foresight program evaluates and prioritizes agri-food system trends that affect food safety. In March 2022, FAO released a foresight report called "Thinking About the Future of Food Safety". The report highlights the potential food safety concerns regarding eight major global drivers and trends such as climate change, changing consumer behavior, new food sources and production systems, urban farming, microbiome science, technological and scientific innovation, as well as the circular economy, and food fraud. This article summarizes the various causes and trends covered in the publication.

Thinking About the Future of Food Safety

Adapting to consumer preferences

Consumer behavior is changing today due to a variety of issues such as climate change, rising earnings, increased emphasis on improving health, and worries about how food production will affect the sustainability of the environment, among others. Food consumption and buying patterns are also chan- ging as a result of these transformations. Such changes might also come with potential food safety issues that need to be evaluated in order to protect consumer health. For example, the pandemic has pushed the significance and acceptance of online shopping as consumers buy food online from restaurants, grocery stores, and other merchants. Unfortunately, these new consumer preferences may lead to food safety concerns brought about by inadequate cold-packaging, deformed packages, or packages left outside for eight hours or longer. In addition, consumers may have trouble accessing food safety information, as there is minimal and often erroneous information on labels and provider websites. Some trends in shifting consumer preferences and the concerns for food safety that go along with them are also discussed in the report.

Thinking About the Future of Food Safety

Urban food safety

Growing food in urban areas is receiving more attention as the world's food security problems and urban population growth mounts. Urban agriculture involves growing food in and around cities and towns. Urban farms come in a variety of sizes, both commercial and non-commercial, and include everything from backyard gardens and community farms to cutting-edge indoor vertical farming techniques such as hydroponic, aquaponic, or aeroponic systems. Urban farming is associated with both benefits and challenges when it comes to food safety. The location of an urban farm is a highly important food safety consideration. Air pollution, paint, litter, and pesticides leave behind various contaminants like heavy metals while contamination of urban yield with pathogenic organisms or chemical hazards from usage of urban wastewater is a critical food safety issue. Pesticide applications in urban areas with close proximity to residential locations may pollute surface water or storm run-off. In addition to the necessity of building mechanisms for good governance and adequate regulatory frameworks specifically for urban food systems, other important issues of urban agriculture's relationship to food safety are highlighted in the report.

Microbiomes, from a food safety point of view

The gastrointestinal tract is constantly exposed to new bacteria coming from the environment, which may carry and potentially transfer antimicrobial resistance genes to members of the gut microbiome. In food safety risk assessments, additives, veterinary drug residues, along with food and environmental pollutants, may all influence the gut microbiota and the host's health. These can be intentionally introduced in the product formulation (i.e. food additives), result from upstream activities in the food chain (e.g. residues of veterinary drugs and pesticides), or be present inadvertently in the diet (e.g. environmental or industrial contaminants). Furthermore, microbiome science is a quickly developing field of research. Food safety risk assessment bodies are closely watching the emerging research regarding its significance for food safety risk assessment. Moreover, decisions about whether and how to modify chemical risk assessments and regulatory science procedures are to be influenced by new findings in this area. Additionally, there are particular worries about the spread of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) from foodborne microorganisms to the gut microbiota.

The circular economy and food fraud

In conclusion, concerns regarding the environmental sustainability of food production, the depletion of natural resources, and other issues are addressed by the circular economy idea. The circular economy places an emphasis on a systems-based approach that includes activities and processes directed toward sustainable management of materials inside a closed loop system, as opposed to a linear model. While this concept has great potential for agri-food systems, there are a number of particular food safety issues that must be taken into account before it can be applied to the various areas of the food industry.

Scientific and technological innovations

Advances in technology have considerably improved our ability to detect pollutants in food and assist in pandemic investigations, strengthen predictive analytics to identify possible dangers, and enhance traceability of food sources. The food industry is rapidly evolving in terms of food packaging, new technologies, and new techniques in producing food such as 3D printing. All of these developments require rigorous assessments of the advantages and risks they pose from the standpoint of food safety. The use of automation, Artificial Intelligence (AI), big data, and blockchain technology has the potential to improve food safety management in the evolving agri-food systems. On the other hand, it also comes with issues such as data privacy and equal access uptake. Additionally, scientific developments will inevitably change how risk assessments are done for food safety, so it is crucial for both food safety and trade that the whole community follows such development.

Furthermore, food fraud is a complicated problem that frequently prompts significant consumer reactions and may have effects on food safety. The foresight brief on this topic attempts to re-center the discussion on increased awareness and the concept of trust built within food control systems. The current narrative surrounding the issue focuses on the trend of ever-increasing food fraud incidents caused by opportunists taking advantage of the complicated nature of agri-food systems.

To ensure that an ever-increasing urban population has access to healthy food, agri-food systems must be further transformed. Our health, economic well-being, and the environment will all be significantly impacted by how agri-food systems develop and change over the following years. To ensure that the expanding global population is sufficiently fed, worldwide awareness, competencies, and capacities to regulate food safety must keep up with these developments.

FAO chief scientist, Ismahane Elouafi explained that, “We are in an era where technological and scientific innovations are revolutionizing the agri-food sector, including the food safety arena. It is important for countries to keep pace with these advances, particularly in a critical area like food safety, and for FAO to provide proactive advice on the application of science and innovation.”

Agri-food systems' internal and external factors will continue to pose problems for food safety. A method to proactively identify and navigate these difficulties as well as new opportunities are provided by FAO. The publication highlights a number of emerging areas of interest that the FAO food safety foresight program has identified. It is aimed at a wide audience, including policymakers, researchers, food industry professionals, the private sector, and the general public, because everyone has the right to safe, nutritious, and sufficient food.

Thinking About the Future of Food Safety