A new study published on 10 October in the journal Nature has found that sustainably feeding the world population, estimated to reach 10 billion by 2050, is achievable but only by adopting healthy and more plant-based diets, cutting food loss and waste in half, and improving farming practices and technologies (1). Without action, the environmental impacts of food systems could increase up to 90% by 2050 as a result of population growth as well as the increasing prevalence of diets high in fats, sugars, and meat. If this happens, all of the so-called “planetary boundaries related to food production would be surpassed, some of them by more than twofold.”
Adequate food systems are necessary for ensuring global food security to feed the ever-increasing world population but the systems currently in place are a major driver of climate change, changes in land use, biodiversity losses, and the depletion of freshwater resources, as well as pollution of both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems via nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizers. Socioeconomic changes are also giving rise to a worldwide shift toward Western consumption patterns, which is likely to intensify stress on the environment.
The international team of researchers, led by Dr Marco Springmann of the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food and the Nuffield Department of Population Health at the University of Oxford, developed a model of the global food systems to track the production and consumption of food across the globe and analysed possible scenarios for keeping the world within several proposed planetary boundaries ― defining “a safe operating space for humanity on a stable Earth system.” Beyond these limits, the earth could be at risk of becoming destabilised.
The study built upon previous analyses that have contributed to the planetary-boundary framework by looking at systemic threats on large-scale ecosystems. However, this is the first to quantify the effects of food production and consumption on the defined set of environmental thresholds. The new global food-systems model goes into country-level detail and considers critical food-related environmental impacts in addition to potential measures for reducing these impacts and preserving the sustainability of key ecosystems. In particular, the model looked at five environmental domains: greenhouse-gas emissions related to climate change; cropland use related to land-system change; freshwater use of surface and groundwater; and nitrogen and phosphorus application related to biogeochemical flows.
The authors conclude that “between 2010 and 2050, as a result of expected changes in population and income levels, the environmental effects of the food system could increase by 50–90% in the absence of technological changes and dedicated mitigation measures, reaching levels that are beyond the planetary boundaries that define a safe operating space for humanity.” They add that “no single measure is enough” to stay within these boundaries; therefore, a combination of strategies will be needed.
One thing is certain, the environmental impacts of the food system are set to increase dramatically over the next 30 years and without sufficient measures being put in place to attenuate these effects, key ecosystems may be at risk. The authors hope this study will provide “a good starting point for this endeavour.”
(1) Springmann, M. et al. Options for keeping the food system within environmental limits. Nature (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41586-018-0594-0