Wheat and silos

Feeding the world’s rapidly expanding population – currently at 7.6 billion and expected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050 – without exacerbating climate change will require the closing of three significant gaps, according to a new report, “Creating a Sustainable Food Future.”

The gaps highlighted in a recent World Resources Institute (WRI) report involve:

  • food supply, simply producing enough to meet rising demand;
  • land for food production: The report estimates that if current production rates continue with the same yields, an additional area almost twice the size of India would be required to produce enough food; and
  • mitigating increased greenhouse gas emissions likely to be produced by the additional food production needed by 2050.

Feeding a rapidly growing population in a sustainable way is a challenge researchers have grappled with for some time. “If you just wanted to feed the world and you didn’t worry about the environment at all, you know that’s probably not that hard because we just basically go and chop down a lot more land, a lot more forest,” says lead author Tim Searchinger. “But the challenge is inherently producing all that more food plus not converting additional land – that’s where the challenge is.”

Searchinger is a Princeton University research scholar who collaborated with an array of international researchers over the past six years to produce the WRI report. A synthesis version was released in December 2018, and the roughly 500-page full report is to be published this spring.

Challenges in feeding 10 billion people by 2050

The synthesis report outlines a variety of options and opportunities to meet the rapidly growing need for nutrition while at the same time working to mitigate climate change. Ultimately, the authors seek to answer the question: “How can the world adequately feed nearly 10 billion people by the year 2050 in ways that help combat poverty, allow the world to meet climate goals, and reduce pressures on the broader environment?”

“If you want to solve climate change, you have to solve this question,” Searchinger says. He points to estimates that agriculture and associated land use change could make up 70 percent of “allowable emissions from all human sources” by 2050 if current practices continue.

How to produce 50 percent more food with two-thirds fewer greenhouse gas emissions by 2050? Click To Tweet

“That would basically leave almost no room for any other emissions, so it would basically make solving climate change impossible,” he says. “So we have to figure out a way to do both and figure out a way to produce 50 percent more food with [approximately] two-thirds fewer emissions – so that’s the challenge.”

The report joins a growing list of documents proposing solutions to climate change that revolve around food and agriculture. Peter de Menocal, dean of science, professor of earth and environmental sciences, and director of the Center for Climate and Life at Columbia University, points to Project Drawdown as another analysis focusing on solutions.

Project Drawdown includes a ranked list of climate solutions, and three of the top five involve food and agriculture. The third-ranked solution is to reduce food waste, number four is a “plant-rich diet,” and fifth on the list is “tropical forests,” which de Menocal notes is related to palm oil and other agricultural uses. He emphasizes the need to take real actions soon.

“I think ultimately we’re in for a big surprise, a big shock if you will, and so I think that transition can be lessened by becoming aware of what the solutions look like and how individuals can change their behaviors to align with the fact that we’re living on a single planet with ever expanding numbers of people,” de Menocal said in an interview.

A menu of sustainable food futures — not a la carte

The WRI report provides a “menu for a sustainable food future” detailing 22 approaches that could help fill the three gaps, including ways to increase agricultural efficiency and produce more food while using less land, fertilizer, and other resources. Along with other measures, the report focuses on restoring certain types of land, like peatlands and forests; reducing greenhouse gas emissions; holding steady the use of biofuels; increasing fish stocks; and reducing the consumption of meat – particularly ruminants like cows, sheep, and goats.

However, this “menu” isn’t an a la carte array of pick-and-choose options. “Significant progress in all 22 menu items is necessary to close the three gaps, requiring action by many millions of farmers, businesses, consumers, and all governments,” the report cautions.

Getting the cooperation of all stakeholders – essentially the entire world – is, unsurprisingly, a difficult feat. Governmental cooperation to preserve land, rather than converting it to agriculture, is imperative. That’s clearly a challenge for the many leaders who are under pressure to convert forests and other types of land for agricultural purposes to meet immediate food needs and produce foods for export.

Political leadership ‘just overwhelmingly important’

Changing political leadership can also speed-up or slow-down change. According to Searchinger, Brazil had made a lot of progress in reducing deforestation, but recent changes in leadership make the future of such progress uncertain. “Politics is critical,” he says. “Politics is just overwhelmingly important – this is mustering the political will,” Searchinger says. “This is true of everything to do with climate change.”

Land use changes are critical especially in certain areas, such as peatlands, wetland areas covering around 3 percent of the Earth and storing massive amounts of carbon. When they are damaged, drained, or used for agriculture, these areas contribute significantly to climate change. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, damaged or drained peatlands are “annually releasing almost 6 percent of global anthropogenic CO2 emissions.”

Searchinger notes that restoring or rewetting peatlands previously damaged, drained, or used for purposes like agriculture can go a long way toward meeting climate change goals and restoring ecosystems. Some of these opportunities are immediate, such as rewetting peatland areas that are seldom used for agriculture. “[We have a] huge opportunity to do something right away just by restoring water to those peatlands,” Searchinger says.

With food supply problems come ‘human conflict’

In addition to the 22 items listed in the report, de Menocal notes a few additional food and agriculture-related areas relevant to climate change and food. He points to climate-related vulnerabilities in the food system, including food distribution; and points also to threats to the crops themselves, including environmental shocks, such as crops being decimated by sudden storms and heat waves.

“Those food shocks are going to become increasingly frequent and I think that’s going to do two things,” de Menocal says. “One is it obviously reduces the food supply, but it also introduces uncertainty in the food supply, and both those things are not great.”

Human conflict goes hand-in-hand with food supply issues, de Menocal cautions. “With food insecurity comes human conflict,” he says. “This is something that’s been well documented both in the prehistorical record but also in the recent historical record such as Syria and of course migrations out of North Africa into Europe. When people are hungry, they migrate, and they’ll migrate to places where there’s food, which is typically the wealthier nations.” He cautions that this migration can also lead to political instability, and says these types of geopolitical concerns are monitored not only by climate modelers and researchers, but also by government intelligence agencies seeking to anticipate and mitigate conflicts.

The need for innovation and change

While analysts work to predict future conflicts and issues, scientists are striving to make progress in the laboratory. New technological innovations could help alleviate some major issues, but predicting the trajectory of scientific developments is a huge challenge since breakthroughs looking out several decades are unpredictable.

New technology could help improve crop yields; produce crops with resistance to pests, diseases, and climatic conditions; and even help develop feed additives to reduce the amount of methane cows emit, among many possibilities. But technology is a wild card dependent on countless unknown future factors. Innovations could take the form of anything from increasing the efficiency of current methods to developing technology far beyond anyone’s current imagination.

That said, plant-based meat substitutes are one area of potential innovation. Producing beef and other ruminant meat is resource-intensive and a major source of greenhouse gases going well beyond emissions from cows themselves.

Searchinger says a variety of meat substitutes, or even half meat/half mushroom mixes, have great potential, especially if they become more economical. They are already a tasty choice, he adds: “Hamburger substitutes are getting really good.”

He is undaunted by the notion of many people having to shift their dietary habits. Searchinger points out that most of the world doesn’t consume much beef, and that people in the U.S. and Europe eat about one-third less beef today than they did in the 1960s.

Eating less meat is important, de Menocal agrees, and he encourages his students to consider trying out “Meatless Monday” as part of a campus initiative. “It’s just introducing people to the idea that you can eat well and still do well by the planet,” de Menocal says. “Even small changes like that make a big difference in terms of collective behavior.” Additionally, he points to meat subsidies as a factor that impact consumption, particularly in the U.S. These subsidies make meat far more affordable than it is in some other parts of the world. “As long as there’s no accounting for the accompanying environmental risks that come with meat production, then I think the price of meat will not reflect its true cost to society,” de Menocal says.

By thinking about what’s on their plate and what’s in their fridge, people can take their own steps toward a sustainable food future. Searchinger urges people to cut down on eating ruminant meat – such as beef and lamb – and work to avoid tossing out food. “[In the U.S.] people tend to buy a lot of food and throw it in the back of the refrigerator and ‘rediscover’ things,” he says. Planning meals and shopping more efficiently, keeping track of food items and using them before they spoil, and being sure to eat leftovers before they go bad are just a few steps people can take that go a long way.

“If we don’t meet these goals, we won’t solve climate change,” Searchinger says.

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