Complex Made Simple

We can feed 10 billion people without draining the planet’s resources

"Supplying a sufficient and healthy diet for every person whilst keeping our biosphere largely intact will require no less than a technological and socio-cultural U-turn," says the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

In theory, 10 billion people can be fed without compromising the Earth's various systems Roughly one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year — approximately 1.3 billion tonnes — gets lost or wasted New sustainable practices hold benefits which are two-fold. In essence, sustainable agriculture can increase overall climate resilience while also limiting global warming

It is no secret that given the way the world has been utilizing the planet’s resources, we’ve been on a downward spiral towards famine, barren lands and worse. 

This week, new research has surfaced addressing this issue.

The problem

New research by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) is addressing one of the greatest challenges facing our planet: Our processes of agriculture pose major problems that are not sustainable in the long run.

“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,” Dieter Gerten says, lead author from PIK and professor at Humboldt University of Berlin. “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.”

“Ultimately the practice of modern farming is not sustainable” because “the damage to the soil and natural ecosystems is so great that farming becomes dependent not on the land but on the artificial inputs into the process, such as fertilizers and pesticides,” writes Andy Dyer in his book ‘Chasing the Red Queen: The Evolutionary Race Between Agricultural Pests and Poisons.’

Additionally, food waste continues to be a major problem, indicating inefficient harvesting processes. 

The latest estimation by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in 2011 details the following: 

  • Roughly one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year — approximately 1.3 billion tonnes — gets lost or wasted.
  • Food losses and waste amounts to roughly $680 billion in industrialized countries and $310 billion in developing countries.
  • Industrialized and developing countries dissipate roughly the same quantities of food — respectively 670 and 630 million tonnes. 

What can be done? Essentially, the researchers at PIK ask the question of how many people we can feed while keeping a strict standard of environmental sustainability worldwide. According to PIK, these environmental capacities are defined in terms of a set of planetary boundaries – scientifically defined targets of maximum allowed human interference with processes that regulate the state of the planet. 

The study accounted for 4 out of 9 total boundaries: Biosphere integrity (keeping biodiversity and ecosystems intact), land-system change, freshwater use, and nitrogen flows. Using a sophisticated simulation model, the analysis demonstrates where and how many boundaries are being violated by current food production and in which ways this development could be reverted through adopting more sustainable forms of agriculture. 

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The result

In theory, and as per the study’s promising result, 10 billion people can be fed without compromising the Earth’s various systems. More sustainable practices are also likely to yield less food waste.

“We find that currently, agriculture in many regions is using too much water, land, or fertilizer,” Johan Rockström, director of PIK, notes. “Production in these regions thus needs to be brought into line with environmental sustainability. Yet, there are huge opportunities to sustainably increase agricultural production in these and other regions. This goes for large parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, where more efficient water and nutrient management could strongly improve yields.”

New sustainable practices hold benefits which are two-fold. In essence, sustainable agriculture can increase overall climate resilience while also limiting global warming. 

Still, in some place across the world, 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 some extent in Central Europe. Even after recalibrating agricultural production, international trade will remain a key element of a sustainably fed world. 

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Consumers play a role as well
Importantly, there is the consumers’ end, too. Large-scale dietary shifts seem to be inevitable for turning the tide to a sustainable food system, such as a more balanced ratio between meat and non-meat food in daily diets. 

“Changes like this might seem hard to chew at first. But in the long run, dietary changes towards a more sustainable mix on your plate will not only benefit the planet, but also people’s health”, adds Vera Heck from PIK. 

Perhaps the most sensitive and challenging implication of the study relates to land, PIK notes. 

“Anything involving land tends to be complex and contested in practice because people’s livelihoods and outlook depend on it,” says Wolfgang Lucht, co-chair for Earth System Analysis at PIK and co-author of the study. “Transitioning to more sustainable land use and management is therefore a demanding challenge to policy-making. Key to success is that the regions affected need to see clear benefits for their development. Then there is a real chance that support for new directions will grow fast enough for stabilising the Earth system.”

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