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It is time to respect the planet’s boundaries—and overhaul how we eat and waste food—if we want to feed our rising population
The way we eat and grow food has to dramatically change if we're going to feed the world's increasing population by 2050 and protect the planet, according to a major report released today from the EAT-Lancet Commission.
Benefits to food security — and health<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5MjQ5OC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1NjAwNTUzN30.W9a7lxo26MxSmh9MZMFunGggdMYqabd7aiZ4hS9T8nM/img.jpg?width=980" id="78e27" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="35b6ed927e784f9830691eb07e364c0d" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Market in Barcelona, Spain. The authors recommend consumption of red meats and sugars to decrease by 50 percent, while increasing consumption of nuts, fruits, vegetables and legumes two-fold. Credit: ja ma/Unsplash)<p>They lay out the main strategies to achieve food security for the estimated 10 billion people that will inhabit the planet in three decades.</p><ul><li>Encourage people to eat healthy diets high in whole grains, fruits and vegetables, with less meat (for most countries) and sugar;</li><li>Incentivize more small and medium farms and diversity within production;</li><li>Protect land, oceans and the biodiversity and habitats within them by prohibiting land clearing, restoring degraded land, stopping exploitive fishing and keeping some ocean areas off limits to fishing;</li><li>Curb freshwater use;</li><li>Reduce fossil fuel emissions; </li><li>Cut the amount of current food waste in half.</li></ul><p>For diets, the authors recommend consumption of red meats and sugars to decrease by 50 percent, while increasing consumption of nuts, fruits, vegetables and legumes two-fold. They said, however, the diets are dependent on the country.</p><p>Such changes, according to the report, would not only spur food security, but health: averting between 10.9 million to 11.6 million premature deaths per year and reduce adult deaths by between 19 percent and 23.6 percent.</p><p>These changes will not be easy. Already more than 820 million people have insufficient food, another roughly 2 billion people are eating too much unhealthy foods. </p><p>Agriculture is the largest pressure humans put on the planet. </p><p>In addition, the population of the planet is expected to grow to about 10 billion by 2050 from its current estimated 7.5 billion. </p><p>"The agricultural sector, while successful in feeding the world, hasn't been successful in feeding the world well," said co-author, Jessica Fanzo, a professor and researcher of global food and agricultural policy and ethics at Johns Hopkins University. </p>
Diets and "planetary boundaries"<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5MjUyNC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxOTY3MDI2MX0.GfzdaGasjFcy_GUxeN9LQssghCjVtMSB4H-xD1NMi68/img.jpg?width=980" id="5edf6" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="be1d59baf1128073ad7b11591e424a6e" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
(Credit: Martin Prokop)<p><a href="https://eatforum.org/eat-lancet-commission/" target="_blank"></a>To address this crisis, the authors put science-based target numbers to aim for.</p><p>For a personal diet, the authors break down how many calories a person should aim for per day for each food group: most calories should come from whole grains, unsaturated oils, legumes, dairy and fruits, with large recommended decreases in meat and sweeteners compared to most current Western Diets. </p><p>"I think it's very possible," said co-author Walter Willett, a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. He added such a diet "would definitely include" the type of traditional Mediterranean diets that have risen in popularity in recent years, and he also pointed out that red meat consumption in the United States has come down 40 percent since its peak in the 1970s.</p><p>For the planet, the authors set "planetary boundaries" for food production to achieve the diet recommendations. These are the minimum agricultural pressures we can put on the Earth to adequately feed people but not hamper the planet's systems. </p><p>Their boundaries are:</p><ul><li>5 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions per year;</li><li>90 teragrams (1 teragram = 1 trillion grams) of nitrogen per year;</li><li>8 teragrams of phosphorous per year;</li><li>2,500 cubic kilometers of water use per year;</li><li>10 wildlife extinctions per million species years (this means if there are a million species on Earth, 10 would go extinct every year);</li><li>13 million square kilometers of land converted to agriculture. </li></ul><p>If we do not transform the food system, said co-author Johan Rockström, a researcher and professor in environmental science at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, "we are very unlikely to lift humanity out of hunger" and "very likely" to fail on international goals such as the Paris Climate Agreement.</p><p>However, on the flip side, there are "win-win opportunities here … adopting healthy diets help us with both climate and sustainable development goals," Rockström said. </p><p>"Adopting a healthy reference diet combined with reducing food waste and investing in scientific technology … can take us to the place we want to be," he said.</p><p>You can view the <a href="https://eatforum.org/eat-lancet-commission/" target="_blank">entire report here</a>. </p>
Virtually all trends, biophysical and socioeconomic, suggest that levels of hunger, already high, will only increase as the human population grows and its life-support systems are degraded. Steps that might ameliorate the situation are, unhappily, nowhere in sight.
Climate constraints<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xNzU5MTM3My9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2NTA3NzQxMX0.eZlIkGgxGcZfpEjpoWKlrdEmqzH6lR5Qn0GvOTAjhE4/img.jpg?width=980" id="2f52e" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9a790e9ff94b6f23bfc86abd5b3a3a5b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" /><p>The most likely major biophysical constraint on future agricultural production is climate disruption, and it is already showing measurable impacts. Changing temperature and moisture regimes directly influence the ability of crops to produce. Global warming has been shown to reduce wheat production by 6 percent for each 1 °C increase. Higher temperatures at night can result in a substantial reduction in rice yields.</p><p>Climate change will very likely cause large reductions in crop yields in numerous ways. First, for all plants, including domesticated crops, there are temperature and soil moisture conditions that produce the highest yields. </p><p>Not surprisingly, farmers generally know this and grow crops on their land that achieve their optimal yields under the local climate. However, as shifts in climate "push the climate envelope," yields will generally decline. Empirical studies indicate that even if we can prevent warming from exceeding 2 °C, the temperature effect alone will result in at least 10 percent declines in yields of some important food crops. </p><p>This is optimistic, however, because water scarcity in a hotter climate will nearly certainly have even more dire impacts on agriculture. On top of that, the trajectory we are currently on will blow the planet right past the 2 degree target.</p><p>Second, roughly a third of the world's crop production relies on irrigation water, much of which derives from snowmelt. The winter snowpack in mountainous regions such as the Himalayas, the Rockies, the Sierra, and the Andes is a most efficient reservoir, storing water through the cold months and releasing it gradually as snowmelt in warm months when farmers need it. </p><p>Climate disruption is resulting in diminishing winter snowpacks and rapid spring runoff, thereby depriving farmers of this valuable asset, and for much of the world, there are no known substitutes. In response to severe and prolonged drought in many regions of the world, including China, India, Thailand, Italy, and California, loss of surface irrigation water has resulted in excessive pumping of groundwater, which in turn has led to land subsidence, groundwater depletion, and irreversible loss of aquifer volume.</p><p>Third, climate disruption inevitably results in catastrophic weather events that occur more frequently, are more intense, and last longer. Such extreme events include drought, superstorms such as Sandy, Harvey, and Irma, heatwaves, and vast wildfires. </p><p>All of these are devastating to crop production, and the agricultural effects can linger well beyond the duration of the weather event itself. </p><p>For example, extreme storms often cause extreme soil erosion, and the substitution of pumped groundwater for lost precipitation can lead to a permanent loss of arable land due to salinization of soil and land subsidence, and (as indicated above) permanent loss of aquifer storage capacity.</p><p>Fourth, food production will also likely be reduced indirectly by the impacts of climate disruption on biodiversity. Warming, for example, will tend to reduce the "pest control" function of winter, converting more and more areas to "tropical" agriculture. </p><p>Warming will also reduce the amount of time farmers can actually work their fields in areas where, for instance, air-conditioned tractor cabs are not available. And, sadly, adding CO2 to the atmosphere may lead to serious problems in the nutritional value of major crops.</p><p>Fifth, warming of the oceans may have serious impacts on fisheries productivity, and ocean acidification from the carbon dioxide humanity is pouring into the atmosphere may have even more serious consequences for the harvest from the sea. </p><p>Impacts on coral reefs are already documented and even readily visible to tourists; this is virtually certainly harming local fisheries so critical to the protein supply of many poor people.</p><p>Finally, climate disruption is already creating the dual problems of climate refugees and increasing flashpoints for conflict within and between nations. For example, drought in Syria and in the Sudan undoubtedly contributed to the eruption of conflict and displacement of people in those regions. </p><p>With farmers displaced from their land, and with the disruption in food supply infrastructure that inevitably accompanies conflict, the problem of hunger is greatly exacerbated.</p><p>Even if the global climate were not disrupted, the world would likely face a severe food security crisis in the coming years. For example, we are overharvesting on both land and sea. </p><p>An early signal of this is fluctuations in the prices of ocean fish, including the recent spike in the price of king salmon. In some regions, the cycle of fallowing and cropping, which is necessary for the sustainability of the soil, is being compromised by the necessity of feeding rapidly growing populations.</p><p>Then, of course, there are the problems of toxification and disease. While climate disruption exacerbates these problems, they also exist even under a benign climate. When we toxify our crops with hormone-mimicking pesticides, we poison ourselves. </p><p>When we pump antibiotics into our domestic animals, to a great extent, a consequence of growing animals in higher densities to increase the efficiency of high-yield husbandry, we render ourselves more vulnerable to newly evolved pathogens. A growing reliance on farmed fish and shellfish, to substitute for declining wild populations, will only increase this risk.</p>
Needed: Attention and political urgency<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xNzU5MTM4OS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MDA1NjY5NX0.ExCx_pKiUuaekPuwP2sW0ZRDer2E5iJQ8R3tRdj9v4I/img.jpg?width=980" id="44c65" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b26c2e983589b2fa0b1b81ff7ad3ba36" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" /><p>We suspect, however, that the greatest barrier to hope on the hunger front is sociopolitical. Above all, it arises from a combination of ignorance, politics, and the stresses on the world order from human overpopulation. Although growing and gathering food is humanity's most important activity, the potential global food problem is given scant attention by either the media or in education systems.</p><p>Indeed, few American college graduates know where their food comes from beyond the supermarket. Such topics as the roles of energy, trade, roads, water-handling infrastructure, and biodiversity in supplying humanity with nourishment rarely appear in classes or public discourse.</p><p>This is dramatically illustrated in the inadequate attention being paid to climate disruption. That is arguably the most serious threat to future food supplies, and yet in climate coverage more attention is paid to sea level rise, heat waves, and coastal disruption from hurricanes and superstorms.</p><p>In fact, the media rarely even draw the dots connecting "weather disruption", which is given great prominence in the news, to climate disruption. It was irresponsible of the mainstream media to talk about the Texas storm, Harvey, while essentially never mentioning its connection to climate change, let alone the strong connection of population growth to both global warming and environmental disruption in general.</p><p>In a warming climate, higher ocean temperatures can power more intense storm events and the warmer atmosphere has the capacity to store more water, so rainstorms are more intense. Hurricane Irma, following immediately after Harvey, at least led to some discussion of connections to climate disruption (but almost none of the fossil fuel and population connections).</p><p>On the negative side, both events added to an emphasis on sea-level rise among those who understand that humanity is changing the climate, to the neglect of the much more serious challenges of climate disruption to agriculture. The multiple harms that global warming is causing, especially to human access to adequate food supplies, will only increase if the science deniers continue to provide politicians with excuses to do nothing about the problem, while the media remains nearly silent.</p><p>It does not help that the most powerful nation in the world, a center of agricultural production and research, is now governed by a kakistocracy. The current Republican administration is acting contrary to the needs of society in critical areas such as agriculture, energy, environment, and water policy. Other national governments are often little better. The importance of climate disruption, biodiversity, water-handling infrastructure, the soil microbiome and so on is little appreciated by decision makers in most nations.</p><p>What would make us more optimistic that massive starvation can be avoided? First and foremost would be bringing the issues of climate change and the many dimensions of the food security situation, especially the inequity of food distribution and food wastage to the top of the policy agenda everywhere. </p><p>Also important would be global efforts to redesign soil and water management practices to help agriculture to deal with climate change already entrained, steps to reduce meat consumption, public education on these, and other food-related issues, including hormone-mimicking toxins. </p><p>Above all, a most hopeful sign would be more nations providing more access to modern contraception and backup abortion and truly equal rights for women. </p><p>Those steps could move the world toward population reduction, the sine qua non of sustainability, and without which none of the other environmental goals are likely to be reached.</p><p><em>Paul R. Ehrlich is the President of the Center for Conservation Biology, and Bing Professor of Population Studies at the Department of Biology, Stanford University; John Harte is a professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, & Management at UC Berkeley. </em></p><p><em>This article was originally published by the journal <a href="http://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/10/4/1120" target="_blank">Sustainability</a>. </em></p>
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Editor's note: This piece was originally published at Millennium Alliance for Humanity and Biosphere (MAHB) and is republished here with permission.
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