Food for all, while respecting environmental boundaries

Food for all, while respecting environmental boundaries

February 13, 2020

Food for all, while respecting environmental boundaries

According to the results of a recent international study, sufficient healthy food can be guaranteed for 10 billion people while respecting the environment, but a cultural change is needed 

The numbers say it all: feeding a growing world population without destroying the planet is not a utopia. Naturally this goal cannot be reached without drastically transforming existing food systems but also, and above all, the mentality of all the planet's inhabitants. “Around half of all food production is currently based on exceeding the environmental boundaries imposed by our planet” explain the authors of an article recently published in Nature Sustainability, led by Dieter Gerten of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, in Germany. These boundaries are the maximum thresholds of human interference with the processes that regulate the state of the planet and the researchers have focused in particular on 4 of them: integrity of the biosphere, changes in land use, water use and nitrogen flows


Falling into line

By respecting these boundaries, the current food system would only be able to guarantee a balanced diet (2,355 kcal per person per day) to 3.4 billion people” explain the authors who later add: “However, our data show that by shifting towards more sustainable production and consumption it would be possible to feed 10.2 billion people, without straying beyond the boundaries.” 

The study took a global snapshot of how and by how much environmental limits are exceeded, highlighting huge differences between the different countries and the consequent need to implement targeted actions to fall into line. For example, in countries with intensive agriculture systems (large regions of central and southern Asia, Europe and the Americas) most of the production - over 70% in some cases locally - requires these boundaries to be exceeded. The eastern United States and Europe often exceed the limits on the use of nitrogen (fertilizers), the tropics are suffering from a loss of integrity of the biosphere, while in many subtropical regions the major problems are related to water. As if that were not enough, it is not uncommon for a single country to exceed more than one boundary simultaneously.   


Hard but not impossible

Being optimistic is not easy in the face of current data but, as experts point out, there is still room for maneuver as long as everyone does their bit. This is also why the researchers list the actions to be taken to stay within each of the four evaluated boundaries. To maintain the integrity of the biosphere, for example, agricultural land in protected areas and in areas where more than 5% of species are endangered has to be abandoned. To reduce nitrogen flows, on the other hand, the use of nitrogen fertilizers in highly permeable soils, which leads to high concentrations in the water, must be restricted. But to reach the final goal it is also essential to reduce waste, which is still too abundant at all levels of the supply chain (production, processing, sale and consumption) and to change eating habits. 

Finally, the large-scale introduction of food sources such as insects or foods derived from new forms of aquaculture could contribute to respecting the boundaries in terms of land use, while fair trade is necessary to ensure that everyone, even those who live in areas with limited food availability, can feed themselves adequately.      


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