As bad as the climate crisis now unfolding appears to be, things could have been even worse, with the world a much less hospitable place for human life.
As bad as the climate crisis now unfolding appears to be, things could have been even worse, with the world a much less hospitable place for human life.
Experts say that reform is needed to make food systems more sustainable, and to function within the Earth's planetary boundaries.
Scientists believe we have already transgressed the safe operating space for Earth's climate and are rapidly approaching thresholds beyond which human society as we know it, and all life on Earth, will be at considerable risk.
Precipitous insect declines are being escalated by humanity as soaring population and advanced technology push us ever closer to overshooting several critical planetary boundaries including biodiversity, climate change, nitrification, and pollution.
How does a business grow and expand, but function in a way that doesn't overexploit the Earth? A new enterprise is offering an answer to this question.
Humankind already has the knowledge to make sustainable and socially just ways of living on this planet possible.
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.
"Civilisation is in crisis. We can no longer feed our population a healthy diet while balancing planetary resources," wrote the commission, which was a three-year project and is comprised of 37 scientists from around the globe. "For the first time in 200,000 years of human history, we are severely out of synchronisation with the planet and nature."
The authors say reconnecting with nature is the key in turning around unsustainable agriculture and poor diets. If humans can "eat in a way that works for our planet as well as our bodies, the natural balance of the planet's resources will be restored," they write. "The nature that is disappearing holds the key to human and planetary survival."
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)
They lay out the main strategies to achieve food security for the estimated 10 billion people that will inhabit the planet in three decades.
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.
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.
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.
Agriculture is the largest pressure humans put on the planet.
In addition, the population of the planet is expected to grow to about 10 billion by 2050 from its current estimated 7.5 billion.
"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.
(Credit: Martin Prokop)
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.
"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.
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.
Their boundaries are:
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.
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.
"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.
You can view the entire report here.
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.
Is it likely humanity will satisfactorily feed 11 billion people around the end of this century? A quick response would be "of course not—after 60 years of assurances that the food problem would be solved, we're not feeding 7.5 billion today."
Indeed, the number of undernourished people in the world has been rising since 2014, reaching an estimated 815 million in 2016, and several billion suffer levels of serious micronutrient malnourishment.
A more refined answer would consider first, the odds on there being 11 billion people in 2100 as projected by United Nations demographers, and then the biophysical and sociopolitical problems of nourishing such a mob.
We will skip the question of what the future population size will be, except to note that the increasing chances of a nuclear holocaust, a deadly pandemic, and/or already plummeting human sperm counts may transform a likely lethal population explosion to a dramatic population crash.
The world's future food production faces several potentially serious biophysical constraints. One is the availability of arable land. Most of the best land is already in production, and much of it is adjacent to urban centers (that is why human populations have tended to concentrate there).
Furthermore, much of that land is being lost to soil erosion and degradation. The addition of more than 3 billion people to the global population seems certain to tighten this constraint. A review nearly a decade ago of the prospects for feeding "just" 9 billion people in 2050 highlighted some of the enormous hurdles the world would have to overcome in just the first half of this century.
A second major constraint is likely to be declining soil quantity and quality, including erosion, depletion of many nutrients not contained in fertilizer, but also degradation of soil texture, and disruption of the soil microbiome that can be critical to crop productivity. The key nutrient phosphorus might be especially problematic, but that issue is debated.
Similarly, food production can also be impacted by humanity's general assault on biodiversity, especially of pollinators and the natural enemies of crop pests. The deteriorating situation of pollinators has mostly focused on colony collapse disorder of honeybees, but is much broader. Populations of wild bees and other pollinating species, including butterflies and moths, birds and bats, are being pushed to extinction at startling rates.
A difficult to measure constraint is the security of the increasingly large monocultures humanity has created, the ability to control pests on them, and the toxic side effects of human control efforts. Potato agriculture and its "pesticide treadmill" presents a good example. A related problem is the likely great increase of poisonings from microplastic/toxin interactions in marine food chains.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
All of these are devastating to crop production, and the agricultural effects can linger well beyond the duration of the weather event itself.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This article was originally published by the journal Sustainability.
In 2008, veterinarians in Canada were asked to pitch in on a project with pressing implications for human health. The question: had an anticipated wave of Lyme disease arrived, and where was it emerging?
In the United States, where disease-ridden ticks had already spread widely in the Northeast and Midwest, dogs had long served as loyal if hapless sentinels of Borrelia burgdorferi infection. Twenty years earlier, Tufts University researchers had found they could use cases of Lyme disease in dogs to predict risk factors for the disease, human and otherwise. Dogs that lived at lower altitudes, namely near the coast, were five times more likely to be infected than others. Sporting dogs, those that romped through fields, were four times as likely.
Moreover, and this is where Canada took a page from American Lyme history, the Tufts researchers found they could accurately predict the incidence of Lyme disease in people by looking at rates in dogs.
After collating reports from 238 veterinary practices involving more than 80,000 dogs, the Canadian study indeed found Lyme disease moving steadily, but ominously, north of the U.S. border, at least in dogs. The risk was "low but widespread," the study found, but with distinct areas of higher prevalence. It was these areas, and what the researchers did not report in their data, that intrigued bird and tick researcher named John D. Scott.
When Scott studied that report of 80,000 dogs and the tick-borne diseases they harbored, published in 2011, he noticed something that the study authors had not. The highest rates of infected dogs, he saw, were not along coastlines or near cut up bits of forest that are known to be hot-beds of Lyme disease.
Rather, the line of highest infection closely followed invisible aerial highways used by songbirds—the common yellowthroat, golden-crowned sparrow, Swainson's thrush—on their annual north- south migration. As Scott had long believed, birds were dispersing ticks as they always had, but with a new and insidious kick; one called Borrelia burgdorferi, the Lyme disease pathogen.
As he interpreted the canine data, he saw that the country's migratory flyways were veritable roadmaps for a growing epidemic. The highest prevalence of infected dogs aligned neatly with three of Canada's four migratory bird highways: the Atlantic flyway, running through the Maritime Provinces, southwestern Quebec, and southern Ontario; the Mississippi flyway, which passes through north-western Ontario and southern Manitoba; and the Pacific flyway, which goes north into southwestern British Columbia.
In a three-year study, he and two colleagues pulled 481 ticks from forty-two species of migrating birds, from Oregon juncos, spotted towhees, swamp sparrows, and American robins. That the birds were carrying fifteen different species of ticks was one thing. Quite another was what these ticks brought along. Nearly 30 percent of 176 Ixodes ticks were infected with the Lyme pathogen.
As concerning was this: half of the larval ticks—namely, tick babies that usually hatch clean and pathogen-free—were now infected after taking their first meal. That could mean only one thing: The "larvae almost certainly acquired borreliae directly" from the migrating birds, which themselves were "competent reservoirs" of infection.
Not only could the birds import ticks into Canada. They could also infect them with the pathogen.
Ever since the 1980s, when HIV spread around the globe in less than a decade, authorities have worried that hitchhiking germs from far-flung places were merely a plane ticket away. Indeed, the Zika virus, with its potential to cause devastating birth defects, hopped oceans in the mid-2010s in the blood of human beings; those people then infected biting mosquitos in their homelands that went on to spread the virus to other people they bit. Such is the deviously ingenious way of disease transmission.
But tick-borne pathogens have their own clever ways of disseminating, geographically and otherwise, that is beyond the reach of any public health travel advisory or warning to wear DEET.
Every spring, about 3 billion passerine birds, including but not limited to songbirds, bring some 50 million to 175 million Ixodes scapularis ticks—the ones that impart Lyme disease—into Canada, a government study estimated in 2008.
Some birds arrived in Nova Scotia so infested with ticks that researchers posited they had to have stopped along the Atlantic flyway in the northeastern United States, where the ticks have been rampant for decades. Some of the imported ticks came from as far south as Brazil and dropped their cargo as far north as the Yukon.
In 2008, the Public Health Agency of Canada mapped the future expansion of ticks and, moreover, of Lyme disease throughout the country. In the previous decade, government and university researchers had watched known populations of Ixodes ticks sprout from a single location in the far south of Ontario to twelve more locations—along Lake Erie; on the fringes of Thousand Islands national park; in Nova Scotia; and in south-eastern Manitoba.
They were bracing for more. Among the data fed into a computer simulation, along with projections of warmer weather, the tally of forested land, and the range of known tick populations, was something called "an index of tick immigration."
Plainly put, a mass migration would deliver more ticks and likely more disease to Canada in coming years, in the form of beautiful waves of song sparrows and wrens, red-winged blackbirds, and warblers of many kinds.
And a warmer climate would help these ticks survive in many new places. In a description that sounds something like a page out of a Superman comic, an article in the International Journal of Health Geographics stated, "These migratory birds are capable of surmounting geographic features (lakes, sea, mountains and areas of intensive agriculture) that are obstacles to dispersal by terrestrial hosts."
Perhaps they aren't scaling buildings in a single bound, but these birds are traversing continents by the billion.
This excerpt is from "Lyme" by Mary Beth Pfeiffer. Copyright © 2018 Mary Beth Pfeiffer. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.
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