Global food production must stay within the planet’s safe boundaries

By Afton Halloran, Head of Nominations, Food Planet Prize 2021-05-18 2 minutes read

We live in the Anthropocene, a planetary epoch defined by humanity’s impact on the Earth’s geology, climate, and ecosystems. Our food system contributes significantly to that impact by placing a mounting burden on the biosphere, the planet’s thin layer of life.

Already today, the global population is nearly 8 billion. As it rapidly increases – scientists predict it will grow by about 70 million per year and reach nearly 10 billion by 2050 – we will put even more pressure on planetary boundaries and increase the risk of passing critical tipping points for the Earth’s stability and resilience.

In 2009, a group of internationally renowned scientists identified nine processes that regulate the stability of the planet’s climate and ecosystems. For each of these processes, the scientists proposed a quantitative planetary boundary within which humanity could continue to thrive for generations to come. The planetary boundaries framework has generated enormous interest among scientists, policymakers, and the general public. It has been a particularly effective guide for making food systems more sustainable.

In a 2015 update, the scientists concluded that four boundaries had already been breached: climate change, biodiversity loss, land degradation, and phosphorus and nitrogen pollution have now reached unsafe levels.

Learn more about the connection between the food system and the nine planetary boundaries:

  1. Nitrogen and phosphorus flows to the biosphere and oceans: The food system is a major driver of pollution of aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems through excessive nitrogen and phosphorus inputs.
  2. Climate Change: The global food system is responsible for more than one-third of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. See also our Report on Air and Climate.
  3. Biodiversity loss and extinctions: One million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, with agricultural production being one of the main drivers. See also our Report on Biodiversity.
  4. Land system change: Forests, grasslands, wetlands and other vegetation types have primarily been converted to agricultural land in many parts of the world. This land-use change is one driving force behind the serious reductions in biodiversity, and it has impacts on water flows and on the biogeochemical cycling of carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus and other important elements. See also our Report on Land-use and Agriculture.
  5. Stratospheric ozone depletion: Increased nitrogen fertilizer use and increased animal manure production are projected to increase agricultural nitrous oxide emissions.
  6. Freshwater consumption and the global hydrological cycle: In most regions of the world, over 70% of freshwater is used for agriculture. See also our Report on Freshwater.
  7. Ocean acidification: Industrial agriculture relies heavily on fertilizers, contributing to the acidification of marine habitats.
  8. Atmospheric aerosol loading: Crop residue burning is known to be a significant global source of atmospheric aerosols. See also our Report on Air and Climate.
  9. Introduction of novel entities: The use of pesticides in crop production and antibiotics in livestock production can have potentially irreversible effects on living organisms and on the physical environment.

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