Scale of challenge to feed growing population while cutting emissions is greater than previously thought, finds WRI report
People in heavy meat consuming regions such as Europe, the US, Russia, and Brazil may have to limit their intake of beef, lamb and goat to 1.5 servings per week by 2050 if the planet is to sustainably feed its population and avert runaway climate change.
That is one of several key recommendations from a new global report, which draws on six years of research and modelling, and has concluded the scale of the challenge to develop sustainable agricultural practices and secure food supplies may be greater than previously thought.
Published today by NGO the World Resources Institute (WRI), the report estimates that by the middle of the century nearly 60 per cent more food will be needed to feed the planet's growing population.
However, this rise in food production must be achieved while holding back expansion of farmland, as well as significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and land use to avoid climate breakdown.
Yet the report argues its suggested solutions - limiting meat intake in more developed regions of the world, vastly improving agricultural efficiency and productivity, and boosting R&D funding for farming technology and methods - are both profitable and viable.
Moreover, it points to significant future co-benefits for human health and nutrition, sustainable development, water stress and tackling climate change from boosting sustainable agriculture, as the world's population swells to a projected 9.8 billion in 2050, from an estimated seven billion in 2010.
Report co-author Janet Ranganathan, WRI's vice president for science and research, described food as "the mother of all sustainability challenges", with hundreds of millions currently going hungry despite the fact agricultural production already takes up half of the world's vegetated land.
"We have to change how we produce and consume food, not just for environmental reasons, but because it is an existential issue for all humans," she said in a press call to reporters.
The research was carried out by a host of academics and agricultural experts with the support of several global bodies, including the World Bank, UN Environment and the UN Development Programme.
It identifies three overarching "gaps" which need closing by 2050 in order to ensure humanity's growing food needs are met in line with global climate targets set out in the Paris Agreement: the food gap; the land gap; and the greenhouse gas emission mitigation gap.
Firstly, more than 7,400 trillion more calories will be needed - a 56 per cent increase from today - to meet likely demand for human food by 2050, it states. Even when taking into account current growth rates and improving crop yields, this is likely to require an increase in agricultural land use of 593 million hectares, an area almost twice the size of India.
At the same time the report calculates that holding global warming to within 2C on average - as set out in the Paris Agreement - means driving down greenhouse gas emissions by two thirds by 2050, the research estimates.
Given agriculture and land use change is currently responsible for one quarter of the world's annual greenhouse gas emissions, closing these three gaps represents a significant but crucial challenge, explained Tim Searchinger, lead author of the report and WRI senior fellow and technical director.
"If we try to produce all the food needed in 2050 with today's production systems, the world would have to convert most of its remaining forests, and agriculture alone would produce almost twice the emissions in 2050 allowable from all human sources," he said. "The challenge is greater than many others have estimated for several reasons, but a big one is that many other analyses have assumed that the world can often simultaneously use the same lands twice. Our report finds it is not simply a problem of net agricultural expansion, but also an unappreciated problem is that agriculture is shifting into more carbon rich and biodiverse land like low lying tropical forest."
As such, the report sets out a "menu of five courses", explained Searchinger: holding down growth in demand for agricultural land to produce food and biomass crops; increasing productivity on existing land; ensuring forests and peatlands are protected; improving fishery and farming management, and; improving farming methods to reduce emissions.
For consumers in developed regions of the world, that means a shift in diets to reduce intake of 'ruminant' meats such as beef, lamb and goat, which require significant grazing land, he said.
"We recommend that two million heavy consumers of beef, lamb and goat in 2050, in the US, Europe, Russia and Brazil, limit their consumption to 1.5 servings per person per week," Searchinger said in the press call. "That's on average 40 per cent less than what they are eating today. We consider that a more realistic goal than expecting large declines in all meat and milk consumption, particularly because the world's poorest people are entitled to consume a little more. And, along with holding down growth in demand for meat, the world also needs to double-to-quadruple livestock productivity on the world's wetter grazing land."
He also said feeding the world sustainably over the next 30 years would require "many innovations" in technology and farming methods, with a particular focus on improving efficiency and productivity of fertilisers and agricultural production in developing nations.
The "good news" is that many valuable opportunities for innovation have already been identified, he said, but at present agricultural R&D only receives a fraction of the funding needed. A focus on flexible regulations from governments could help produce a market that entices private sector funding, Searchinger suggested.
"Almost all of the actions we identify have the potential to be cost effective or profitable, and have large co-benefits for society and health," he said. "Yet implementing the menu to sustainably feed 10 million people in 2050 will require a whole new world of commitments and political will."
Reducing meat intake through vegetarian, vegan or flexitarian diets is becoming increasingly popular in the UK and some other developed countries, while calls have come for red meat to be taxed in order to further limit its consumption in order to tackle climate change and hunger.
Welcoming the findings of the report, Quorn Foods chief executive Kevin Brennan said that to scale the levels of meat reduction needed in diets to meet sustainable development and climate goals, it would "ultimately require some degree or government intervention".
"Until meat pricing fully reflects the externality that it is now clear it creates, it will get continue to get consumed, even as more and better alternatives become widely available," he argued.
But such proposals remain highly controversial and have attracted fierce criticism from some farming groups and politicians.
The impact of our diets on the planet's landscape and climate has rarely been laid out in such stark fashion as it is in today's research, which highlights the wholesale changes required to lifestyles, policies, financing, and food supply systems in order to avoid exacerbating hunger and fuelling a climate crisis. Fortunately, the trend in some diets is starting to head in a more sustainable direction, but it remains to be seen whether governments and investors will also play their part - and in this case change is a dish best served rapidly.
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