Zero deforestation and meat-rich diets – possible but very tricky

By David Burrows

- Last updated on GMT

'We find that many options exist to meet the global food supply in 2050 without deforestation, even at low crop-yield levels,' the researchers say - but it will be difficult unless diets change. © iStock
'We find that many options exist to meet the global food supply in 2050 without deforestation, even at low crop-yield levels,' the researchers say - but it will be difficult unless diets change. © iStock

Related tags: Agriculture

Fear not – nine billion people can be fed by 2050 without further deforestation. The claim comes from researchers at the Global Institute of Social Ecology in Vienna, Austria.

The team assessed 500 different scenarios in a “hypothetical world of zero deforestation”​, combining technological advancements, changes to agricultural systems and shifts in consumption patterns.

Of the 500, around 60% are feasible, said one of the study’s authors, Karlheinz Erb. “We find that many options exist to meet the global food supply in 2050 without deforestation, even at low crop-yield levels,” ​the researchers noted.

The findings indicate that “deforestation is not a precondition for supplying the world with sufficient food in terms of quantity and quality in 2050 and that many options exist based on different strategies”,​ according to the paper published in Nature Communications​.

But a change in diets is the most important component – far more so than any potential yield increase or expansion of cropland. Eat no meat and there are around 450 options available to feed everyone without further deforestation. Eat lots and this shrinks to about 75.

The world isn’t going to turn vegetarian overnight – or even by the year 2050. What’s more, livestock farming does have its benefits in terms of nutrition, the environment and the global economy.

Big issue

Deforestation has rocketed up the priority list for food companies – and not just those using commodities like palm oil. Soy is also imported into the EU in vast quantities, principally as animal feed.

Commitments made by Unilever and Marks & Spencer have been welcomed by NGOs. However, WWF claimed recently that the industry has been slow to react to the issue.

WWF’s agricultural commodities expert Dr Emma Keller has warned​ that production of soy is placing “considerable pressure” on some the world’s most valuable forest ecosystems. The NGO will soon publish details of its 2016 soy scorecard, which will scrutinse the procurement policies of the world’s major food companies.

This new research​ from Austria reveals that even a global adoption of diets currently prevailing in the Western world would be feasible without deforestation provided cropland yields “rose massively”​ and cropland expanded strongly into areas that are today used for grazing.

The chances of achieving this are limited. Erb and his team found that nine billion people eating diets akin to those in Western societies currently sees the percentage of feasible scenarios plummet to 15%, with forests hovered up to grow livestock feed. Stay as we are and around two-thirds of the options can work.

If the world’s population followed a vegan diet, all combinations of parameters, even those with lowest yield levels and low cropland expansion, would be feasible. With a vegetarian diet, 94% would be.

How much food can be produced will also have an impact. “The increased area demand resulting from low yields renders scenarios with richer diets unfeasible,”​ the team noted.

Vegan diets require less cropland than in the year 2000, whereas if today’s diets are maintained or everyone eats a Western diet, 52% more cropland will be required.

 

 

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