If we all start eating more healthy and plant-based foods; halve our food loss; recycle more waste; and improve our agricultural practices, we can feed around 10bn people sustainably by 2050.
“But it has to be a combination, because with just one of these measures, we will not make it, without exceeding environmental boundaries,” says Wim de Vries of Wageningen University in the Netherlands, a world-leader in the field of healthy food and environments.
He is a contributor to a new study, published in the journal Nature, which is the first study to quantify how food production and consumption affect the planetary boundaries og a safe operating space for humanity, beyond which Earth’s vital systems could become unstable.
“No single solution is enough to avoid crossing planetary boundaries,” says Marco Springmann of the University of Oxford, who led the study.
Co-author Prof de Vriessays: “Without concerted action, we found that the environmental impacts of the food system could increase by 50%-90% by 2050, as a result of population growth and the rise of diets high in fats, sugars and meat. In that case, all planetary boundaries related to food production would be surpassed, some of them by more than two-fold.”
The study was funded as part of the EAT-Lancet Commission for Food, Planet and Health and by Wellcome’s “Our Planet, Our Health” partnership on Livestock Environment and People.
The researchers found climate change cannot be sufficiently mitigated without dietary changes towards more plant-based, “flexitarian” diets globally, which could reduce greenhouse gas emissions from food systems by more than half, and help the environment by reducing fertiliser application and use of cropland and freshwater.
Also called for is improved management and technology in agriculture, to limit pressures on land and freshwater, by increasing yields from existing cropland, balancing application and recycling of fertilisers, and improving water management.
Halving food loss and waste is required.
“It will need strong global co-ordination and rapid upscale to make their effects felt,” says Springmann.
The study team said increased investment in research and public infrastructure, incentive schemes for farmers, and better regulation, are all needed.
Fabrice de Clerck, director of science at EAT, said: “Tackling food loss and waste will require measures across the entire food chain, from storage, and transport, over food packaging and labelling to changes in legislation and business behaviour that promote zero-waste supply chains.”
Their findings coincide with a United Nations climate science report (see graphic, right) that “rapid and far-reaching transitions”, including a deep cut in greenhouse gas emissions, and greater reliance on nuclear power, are needed to keep global warming within 1.5C.
The report was vetted and endorsed by all 195 governments that are parties to the Paris climate agreement, despite attempts by Saudi Arabia to block it, and leaked critical US comments. The 2015 Paris Agreement sets a global goal of limiting warming to “well below” 2C.
The report said carbon removal methods such as planting trees, and farming practices that retain more carbon in the soil, plus technological solutions, will not be enough; reducing carbon dioxide emissions “well before” 2030 is also needed.
An area possibly as big as Australia is needed for growing energy crops, according to the UN report.