Monday, February 10, 2020

Feeding the World without Wrecking the Planet

In January researchers from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) in Germany published a study to see if it is possible to feed the 10 billion people 2050 projected to occupy our planet in a sustainable way. The article “Feeding ten billion people is possible within four terrestrial planetary boundaries” was published in Nature Sustainability in January 2020 (the proper citing is at the bottom).

The researchers ask the question how many people could be fed while keeping a strict standard of environmental sustainability worldwide. Their study addresses for four of nine sustainability boundaries most relevant for agriculture: Biosphere integrity (keeping biodiversity and ecosystems intact), land-system change, freshwater use, and nitrogen flows. Based on a detailed simulation model they built, the impacts of food on these boundaries are examined at a level of spatial and process detail never reached before, and were also able to aggregated the data for the entire planet.

The researchers found that almost half of current food production is harmful to our planet – causing biodiversity loss, ecosystem degradation and water stress. “When looking at the status of planet Earth and the influence of current global agriculture practices upon it, there’s a lot of reason to worry, but also reason for hope – if we see decisive actions very soon,” says Dieter Gerten, lead author of the article from PIK and professor at Humboldt University of Berlin. He goes on to say: “Currently, almost half of global food production relies on crossing Earth’s environmental boundaries. We appropriate too much land for crops and livestock, fertilize too heavily and irrigate too extensively. To solve this issue in the face of a still growing world population, we collectively need to rethink how to produce food. Excitingly, our research shows that such transformations will make it possible to provide enough food for up to 10 billion people.”

In theory, 10 billion people can be fed 2,600 calories a day without compromising the Earth eco-system. Unfortunately, the solutions put forward by the researchers do not seem either politically or practically possible. They found that agriculture in many regions (India and Sub-Saharan Africa for example) is using too much water, land, or fertilizer. Production in these regions needs to be brought into line with environmental sustainability. The question is how. In other places, however, farming is so far off local and Earth’s boundaries that even more sustainable systems could not completely balance the pressure on the environment, such as in parts of the Middle East, Indonesia, and to in Central Europe.

Thus the researchers propose: Relocation of food production. Large-scale dietary shifts away from animal proteins towards more legumes and other vegetables. Another crucial factor is reducing food loss pointing out that the most recent IPCC Special Report on land use found that currently, up to 30% of all food produced is lost to waste. Perhaps the most sensitive and challenging implication of the study relates to land. The manner, location and types of food grown would need to be managed seemingly by some global management entity. And even after recalibrating agricultural production, international trade would be required as a key element of a sustainably fed world because not all nations would be able to produce enough food to feed their people. Under that scheme it is easy to imagine that many would prefer to continue farming in an unstainable way rather that submit to global management.

While the topic of how to feed the future population has been in broad discussion for several years. This analysis is unique in that it demonstrates the current form of agriculture is not sustainable. Supplying a sufficient and healthy diet for every person while maintaining the planet’s biosphere intact would require adopting radically different ways of farming, reduction of food waste, significant dietary changes, and central management and planning of food production. The study's publication coincided with the World Economic Forum in Davos and the International Green Week in Berlin, the world's biggest food and agriculture fair.

If you are interested in this topic, you might want to look at “How to Sustainably Feed 10 Billion People by 2050, in 21 Charts” from the World Resource Institute at this link

Gerten, D., Heck, V., J├Ągermeyr, J. et al. Feeding ten billion people is possible within four terrestrial planetary boundaries. Nat Sustain (2020).

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