With the global population set to rise to 9.8 billion by 2050, the most recent report by the World Resource Institute projects overall food demand to grow by 50% and the demand for animal-based food products to rise by 70%.
Yet today, 800 million people are hungry, 2 billion people are malnourished, and a further 2 billion are overweight or obese.
According to Tim Benton, professor of population ecology at the University of Leeds,
‘‘The global food system is broken. Whether you look at it from a human health, environmental or climate perspective, our food system is currently unsustainable and given the challenges that will arise from a growing global population, that is a really serious thing to say’’.
The WRI’s most recent report entitled ‘Creating A Sustainable Food Future’, is timely and contains a wealth of research focused on global policy-making, land usage, and effective dietary management in order to meet established global greenhouse gas emissions goals by 2050.
It aims to meet growing food demands, avoid deforestation and reforest or restore abandoned land in ways that help stabilize the climate, promote economic development and reduce poverty.
It outlines clearly the ‘Three Gaps’ that we need to close as a global community by 2050:
1 – The Food Gap.
The difference between food produced in 2010 and the amount of food necessary to meet 2050 demands is 7,400 trillion calories or 56% more crop calories.
2 – The Land Gap.
The difference between the amount of land necessary to feed the population in 2010 vs. 2050 is 593 million hectares (Mha) – that’s an area of land twice the size of India.
3 – The GHG Mitigation Gap.
The predicted agricultural greenhouse gas emissions for 2050 are 15 Gt. (gigatonnes). There is a global target of 4 Gt. allocated to agricultural GHG emissions in 2050 to keep global warming below 2°C above pre-industrial temperatures. Therefore, there is an 11 Gt. gap to be closed. In fact, holding warming to below a 1.5°C increase would require meeting the 4 Gt. target plus reforesting hundreds of millions of hectares of liberated agricultural land.
The report highlighted the need for limiting the global growth of unsustainable food production,
‘If today’s levels of food production efficiency were to remain constant through 2050, then feeding the planet would entail clearing most of the worlds remaining forests, wiping out thousands more species and releasing enough GHG emissions to exceed the 1.5°C and 2°C warming targets laid out in the Paris Agreement 2015 – even if emissions from all other human activities were entirely eliminated.’
It suggests that in order to close the food gap, we first have to slow the rate of growth in demand and shift the diets of high meat-consumers towards plant-based foods.
The current projections are that the consumption of animal-based products will grow by 68% by 2050, with an 88% increase in the consumption of ruminant meat (cattle, goat and sheep).
These ruminant meat sources require several times more feed and land inputs and emit far more GHGs than plant-based foods.
According to research included in a report from Bouvard, the large global rise in consumption of animal-based products is both ‘unhealthy and unnecessary’. It stated that half the world’s population currently consumes 50% more protein than needed and found processed meat to be carcinogenic while red meat was found to be ‘probably carcinogenic’.
Staggeringly, beef accounts for roughly half of land use and emissions associated with a U.S. diet but it provides just 3% of the calories. The WRI report suggests that a move away from beef and towards chicken/pork would have major environmental benefits.
With regards land usage, it held that the level of reforestation needed (millions of hectares) is potentially achievable but only if the world succeeds in reducing the projected growth in demand for resource-intensive agricultural products such as beef.
Between 1962 and 2010, 500 million hectares of forests and woody savannas were cleared for agriculture. More land clearing would exacerbate a biodiversity crisis driven heavily by land-use change.
Thusly, crop and pasture yields increasing without the clearing of more land is essential. The rate of increase required is faster than that achieved from 1961-2010, – which was a period that included the use of fertilizer and scientifically bred seeds – to fully meet expected food demands and avoid the destruction of more forests.
Because of this, the WRI report is calling for policy-based action across the board from governments, businesses and civil society. It suggests that progress at the necessary scale requires large increases in Research and Development funding as well as flexible regulations that allow private industry to develop and market new technologies.
Such innovative technologies include crop additives that reduce emissions from rice/cattle, improved fertilizers that reduce nitrogen runoff, solar-based processes for making fertilizers and plant-based beef substitutes.
It recommends that innovations such as these become the norm and that visibility through promotions and marketing should be implemented by business and government efforts – it suggests the possibility of a meat-tax in such cases where plant-based meat substitutes cost the same as beef or any ruminant meat source.
The importance of access to education and reproductive services for women in sub-Saharan Africa was also raised as regions such as these present several challenges because of high population growth and low agricultural yields.
The WRI report reiterated one message throughout the entirety of its research:
‘A sustainable food future is achievable if governments, private sector and civil society act quickly, creatively and with conviction’.
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