11th October 2018

Feeding 10 billion people by 2050 within planetary limits may be achievable

A global shift towards healthy and more plant-based diets, halving food loss and waste, and improving farming practices and technologies are required to feed 10 billion people sustainably by 2050, a new study finds.

Adopting these options can reduce the risk of crossing global environmental limits related to climate change, the use of agricultural land, the extraction of freshwater resources, and the pollution of ecosystems through overapplication of fertilisers, according to the researchers.

The study, published yesterday in the journal Nature, is the first to quantify how food production and consumption affects the planetary boundaries that describe a safe operating space for humanity, beyond which Earth's vital systems could become unstable.

"No single solution is enough to avoid transgressing planetary boundaries," says Dr Marco Springmann, from the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food at the University of Oxford and the study's lead author. "But when they are implemented together, our research indicates it may be possible to feed the growing population sustainably."

Springmann argues that without concerted action, the environmental impacts of the food system could increase by between 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 twofold.

farming cattle food future timeline 2050

The study was funded by EAT, 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. It combined detailed environmental accounts with a model of the global food system that tracks the production and consumption of food across the world. Using this model, the researchers analysed several possible options that could keep the food system within Earth's environmental limits. They found:

• Climate change cannot be sufficiently mitigated without a shift towards more plant-based diets. Adopting semi-vegetarian or "flexitarian" diets globally could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 50%, and also reduce other environmental impacts, such as fertiliser application and the use of cropland and freshwater, by up to 25%.

• In addition to dietary changes, better management practices and farming technologies are required to limit pressures on agricultural land, freshwater extraction, and fertiliser use. Increasing agricultural yields from existing cropland, balancing application and recycling of fertilisers, and improving water management, could, along with other measures, reduce those impacts by around half.

• Finally, halving food loss and waste is needed for keeping the food system within environmental limits. Halving food loss and waste could reduce overall environmental impacts by up to one-sixth (16%) globally.

robot fruit farming technology future timeline

"Many of the solutions we analysed are already being implemented in some parts of the world, but it will need strong global co-ordination and rapid upscale to make their effects felt," says Springmann.

"Improving farming technologies and management practices will require increasing investment in public infrastructure, the right incentive schemes for farmers, including support mechanisms to adopt best available practices, and better regulation – for example of fertiliser use and water quality," explains Line Gordon, executive director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre and an author on the report.

Fabrice de Clerck, director of science at EAT, commented: "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."

"When it comes to diets, comprehensive policy and business approaches are essential to make dietary changes towards healthy and more plant-based diets possible and attractive for a large number of people," adds Springmann. "Important aspects include school and workplace programmes, economic incentives and labelling, and aligning national dietary guidelines with current scientific evidence on healthy eating and environmental impacts of our diet."

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Feeding 10 billion people by 2050 within planetary limits may be achievable