Our current food system can only feed 3.4 billion people sustainably

Rice harvest in Williams, California. | Ken James / Getty Images

According to a recent analysis of global agriculture, as it stands, our food system can only feed 3.4 billion people before reaching sustainable global production limits. However, according to the analysis, reorganizing agricultural crops and making certain changes in diets would allow us to meet the food needs of 10 billion people on a sustainable basis.

" We must not go further in the production of food at the expense of the environment, " says Dieter Gerten, of the Climate Impact Research Institute in Potsdam, Germany, and author of the study.

In 2009, researchers identified nine potential “planetary limits”: thresholds that we should not exceed if we want to keep the systems necessary for life on Earth viable.

Gerten's team examined four rules / limits that are relevant to agriculture: limiting the use of nitrogen (causes dead zones in lakes and oceans), limiting the withdrawal of fresh water from rivers and l exploitation of forests, and maintain biodiversity.

Very harmful food production in certain areas

The team's conclusion is that half of food production today exceeds these limits. However, this analysis is also the first to provide an overview of where, geographically, these are transgressed. By changing what is grown in specific places, the team says it would be possible to feed 10 billion people within the four limits.

Potential for sustainable recalibration of the food system. Increases in caloric intake are possible in the green areas; reductions due to overly detrimental food production are shown in red. Credits: Gerten et al. 2020

This would involve reseeding farms in areas where more than 5% of species are threatened, reforesting agricultural land where more than 85% of tropical forests have been felled, reducing water withdrawals for irrigation and d 'other purposes, as well as the reduction of nitrogen fertilization when the levels in surface waters are too high. The holdings could be enlarged in areas where these limits are not exceeded.

This could, for example, mean restricting the use of fertilizers in parts of eastern China and central Europe, and expanding it in parts of sub-Saharan Africa and the western United States.

Drastic measures in anticipation of 2050…

Such changes would allow the sustainable production of enough food for 7.8 billion people, roughly equivalent to the current global population. Reducing food waste and stopping excessive consumption of meat could then bring this figure to 10.2 billion, slightly more than the world population forecast for 2050.

However, the team warns that these solutions assume that the planet will not warm by more than 1.5 ° C. Subsequent studies will therefore look at the effects of global warming beyond this stage. But on the other hand, the team assumes in the study that the world depends only on existing technologies, and not on new approaches such as genome editing, the use of solar panels to grow food or new agricultural technologies, which could be a game-changer.


Feeding ten billion people is possible within four terrestrial planetary boundaries

Dieter Gerten, Vera Heck, Jonas Jägermeyr, Benjamin Leon Bodirsky, Ingo Fetzer, Mika Jalava, Matti Kummu, Wolfgang Lucht, Johan Rockström, Sibyll Schaphoff & Hans Joachim Schellnhuber

Nature Sustainability (2020)


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