Ethics, Politics, Knowledge and Our Planet’s Food Futures

The Ethics of Food Futures Studies Project 

Studies of the futures of food answer questions such as “do we need to increase global agricultural production to feed the world sustainably in 2050?”  Conclusions vary dramatically: while some maintain we do not need to increase production at all, others claim we need to increase it by 30-100%. Similar variations and uncertainties are striking with respect to many other dimensions of food systems. Discrepancies among studies on thematic focus, indicators, and data sources are also consequential. The sheer heterogeneity of methods used to explore the futures of food undermines meaningful comparisons between studies. These issues and many others compromise responsible and informed collective choices vital for humanity, the wellbeing of nonhuman animals, and our impact on Earth systems. In short, disagreements on what policies and social actions we should adopt to shape the future of food depend on how we assess the evolution of food systems over the long-term (at least 20 years into the future). Nothing is more fundamental.

“Futures studies,” “foresight,” or “prospective” apply scientific rigor, artful skill, and practical imagination to predict, forecast, anticipate, control, shape, or create possible futures of food that are relevant to present-day choices. Building on foresight practitioners’ rich tradition of reflection on their own work, our interdisciplinary team from Johns Hopkins University and Wageningen University (Netherlands) has initiated a pilot project that engages with ethical, political, governance, and epistemic assumptions underlying global food futures studies. Its innovative and systematic approach borrows tools from philosophy, futures studie, STS, economics, and social sciences to shed light on global food futures studies. The project is articulated around four work packages:

WP1: Long-term Global Food Futures: A Mapping Review of Methods and Thematic Focus since 1945 (Leader: Yashar Saghai)
WP2: FoodFutures: A Systematic Review of Global Food Security and Nutrition Model Studies (Leader Michiel van Dijk)
WP3: Challenging the Notion of “Plausible” Food Futures (Leader: Yashar Saghai)
WP4: Global Food System Governance in Food Futures Studies (Leader: Otto Hospes)

This project elaborates on an idea originally described in the 7 by 5 Agenda: Ethical Challenges in Projections of Global Food Demand, Supply, and Prices.


Yashar Saghai, Ph.D. (Principal Investigator) is a Research Scholar and Associate Faculty at the Berman Institute of Bioethics, Johns Hopkins University.



Otto Hospes, Ph.D., (Team Leader) is an Associate Professor of Public-Private Governance of Food in the Public Administration and Policy Group, Department of Social Sciences at Wageningen University. Dr Hospes holds a Ph.D. in sociology and is a legal pluralist studying how state and non-state legal orders affect governance of food and agriculture. He investigates conflicts and collaboration between private actors and public authorities in governing food systems and global value chains; tensions between global-scale and national-scale governance; the evaluation of multi-stakeholder governance, food sovereignty; the governance of biofuels in Brazil, wicked problems within food systems; and the governance of the right to food and its implementation in the Netherlands. He has participated in a number of projects, including Next Generation Governance Arrangements for Sustainable Global Value Chains.

Michiel van Dijk, Ph.D. (Team Leader), is a Senior Researcher at Wageningen Economic Researchin the Hague and a Research Scholar at one of the oldest Futures Studies think tanks, the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA). There, Dr. van Dijk is part of the Ecosystems Services and Management Program. He works on the Integrated Solutions for Water, Energy, and Land (IS-WEL) project to assess the food-energy-water nexus at global and sub-regional levels using a combination of models. He also contributes to the development of the GLOBIOM model by integrating and linking micro-level survey data. At Wageningen, Dr. van Dijk led the work package to develop scenarios for the modelling of global food and nutrition security futures as part of the FOODSECURE project, and has co-authored a review of studies on this topic. He contributes to the development of MAGNET, the Wageningen Economic Research in-house global economic simulation model.

Tomas Dunbar Morley, MSc (Team Member) is a Researcher at Wageningen Economic Researchin The Hague. He is a quantitative economist and has a background in econometrics, statistics and mathematics. The main focus of his work to date has been the application of micro-econometric techniques to household and farm level data in the context of food production and nutrition security.

Marie-Luise Rau, Ph.D. (Team Member),is an agri-food economist at Wageningen Economic Research, part of Wageningen University and Research (WUR). She has been working on international topics, in particular non-tariff measures (NTMs) and their effect in between countries, including welfare effects in developing countries in the context of food security and the sustainably development goals. Next to the quantitative analysis, she has been conducting systematic reviews on international topics, e.g. impact pathways of farmer support programmes in developing counties. She holds a Master-level certificate “Research Synthesis for Policy and Practice” of the University of London, EPPI-Centre.

Project Duration: May 2016-April 2017
Deliverables expected: January 31, 2018
Funder: Stavros Niarchos Foundation