The researchers say their study, which was funded by the EAT Forum and independent global health non-profit Wellcome, is the first to quantify how food production and consumption affects planetary boundaries, a term that describes the safe operating space for humanity beyond which Earth’s vital systems could become unstable.
Several of these boundaries have already been crossed, they write, particularly those concerning climate change and biogeochemical flows related to nitrogen and phosphorous cycles.
“If socioeconomic changes towards Western consumption patterns continue, the environmental pressures of the food system are likely to intensify, and humanity might soon approach the planetary boundaries for global freshwater use, change in land use, and ocean acidification,” the study reads. “Beyond those boundaries, ecosystems could be at risk of being destabilized and losing the regulation functions on which populations depend.”
Essentially, the researchers argue there are three areas for action: adopting more plant-based ‘flexitarian’ diets that reduce meat and dairy intake; improved land management practices and climate-smart agriculture; and thirdly, cutting food loss and waste in half.
In part II of our coverage on this Nature article published next week, FoodNavigator speaks to co-author and science director of EAT and the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Dr. Fabrice DeClerck PhD, who offers advice to manufacturers and suppliers on how to be part of the solution.
"But it has to be a combination because with just one of these measures we will not make it without exceeding environmental boundaries," said co-author Wim de Vries of Wageningen University.
The researchers provide country-specific data and a series of scenarios produced specifically for the study that offer “a good starting point” for this endeavour.
“[…] When the solutions are implemented together, our research indicates that it may be possible to feed the growing population sustainably,” said a statement by lead author Dr Marco Springmann of the University of Oxford.
De Vries added: “Without concerted action, we found that the environmental impacts of the food system could increase by 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.”
A global shift to more plant-based diets globally could reduce agriculture- and food production-related greenhouse gas emissions by more than half. It would also reduce the use of fertilizer, cropland and fresh water from between one-tenth and a quarter.
A variety of measure is needed to bring about the necessary dietary changes, including food labelling, taxes and subsidies, awareness campaigns and education.
“Integrated, multicomponent approaches that include clear policy measures might be best suited for changing diets”.
“An important first step would be to align national food-based dietary guidelines with the present evidence on healthy eating and the environmental impacts of diets,” they add.
It is believed that over one-third of all food we produce is either lost before it reaches the market, or is wasted by households. To reduce this, the scientists argue for a two-pronged approach depending on the underlying cause.
In developing countries, where food waste is mostly caused by food spoiling due to a lack of facilities, investments must be made in agricultural infrastructure, technological skills, cold storage, transport and distribution.
Meanwhile, in developed countries, they call for education and awareness campaigns, food labelling, improved packaging that prolongs shelf life and changes in legislation and business behaviour that promote closed-loop supply chains.
Halving the amount of food wasted alone could reduce environmental impacts by up to one-sixth, the researchers calculate.
As for making farming more ‘climate-smart’, the study calls on producers to adopt sustainable practices such as recycling fertilizers and improving water management.
The authors conclude: “Synergistically combining improvements in technologies and management, reductions in food loss and waste, and dietary changes towards healthier, more plant-based diets, with particular attention to local contexts and environmental pressures, will be a key challenge in defining region specific pathways for the sustainable development of food systems within the planetary option space.”
“Options for keeping the food system within environmental limits”
Available online 10 October 2018, doi.org/10.1038/s41586-018-0594-0
Authors: Marco Springmann, Michael Clark, Daniel Mason-D’Croz, Keith Wiebe, Benjamin Leon Bodirsky et al.