Facts & Relevant Readings
Understanding the Food Planet Challenge
On this page, we will successively build a library of facts, scientific reports, and other readings relevant to understanding the interaction between the global food system and the planet.
We will also publish a series of themed articles, specially written for the Food Planet Prize, that carefully analyze these interactions. To solve the many problems related to the food system, we must understand its mechanisms.
Fortunately, there are solutions —some of them already in place, others ripe for development— to most of these challenges. To find and support these initiatives, and reward the best of them, is the aim of the Food Planet Prize. Each of the themes published will be accompanied by a selection—the editors’ pick— of potential solutions, all of which have been nominated for the prize. Together they illustrate the breadth and depth of the creative
energy currently devoted to improving food systems around the world.
Below are links referred to in the other pages on this website. Each of the feature articles will have its own link library.
Global food production must stay within the planet’s safe boundaries
Globally, food production damages natural ecosystems, exhausts freshwater supplies, pollutes rivers and coastal seas, and releases an excess of greenhouse gases. In other words, the food sector has significant responsibility for driving the environment beyond planetary boundaries, the safe operating space we should stay within to avert large-scale and abrupt environmental degradation.
- 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. In a 2015 update, the scientists concluded that four of those boundaries had already been breached: climate change, biodiversity loss, land degradation and phosphorus and nitrogen pollution have now reached unsafe levels.
- The planetary boundaries framework has generated enormous interest among scientists, policymakers, and the general public. It has been an especially effective guide for making food systems more sustainable.
Steffen W, and others. 2015. Planetary Boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet. Science, 16 January, 2015. DOI: 10.1126/science.1259855
How to feed a growing population, meet climate goals and reduce poverty
Is it possible to adequately feed nearly 10 billion people by the year 2050 while also combatting poverty, meeting climate goals, and reducing pressures on the environment? This is the fundamental question addressed in a May 2019 report produced by the World Resources Institute (WRI), in partnership with the World Bank and the UN Environment and Development Programmes, among others. The report offers a five-course menu of solutions, including proposals to:
- Reduce food loss and waste, avoid further expansion of biofuel production and shift meat-heavy diets toward plant-based foods. The latter is especially important in parts of the world where the Western diet – high in refined carbohydrates, added sugars, fats, and animal-based foods – is taking hold.
- Use natural resources more efficiently to improve crop yields and increase animal productivity relative to the amount of land and chemical additives required.
- Slow population growth by educating girls and providing access to reproductive health services.
“The planetary health diet”: a call to shift focus from red to green
Diets and food production must radically change if we are to improve human health and avoid potentially catastrophic damage to the planet. This is the conclusion of a 2019 Lancet report which argues that the lack of science-based targets for a healthy diet have hindered efforts to transform the food system. Based on the best available evidence, the report proposes a diet that meets nutritional requirements, promotes health, and allows food production to stay within planetary boundaries. Key recommendations include:
- Global consumption of foods such as red meat and sugar should decrease by more than 50%, while consumption of foods like nuts, fruits, vegetables, and legumes should double.
- Food waste must be reduced by at least half. In low- and middle-income countries most waste occurs during production, whereas in high-income countries it is primarily caused by consumers.
- Achieving these changes – including the most pressing, like the diversification of agriculture and the implementation of better governance over land and ocean use – will require unprecedented levels of international cooperation and commitment.
The way the world produces food and manages land is critical to solve the climate crisis
Curbing emissions from transports, industries and energy production is important, but insufficient on its own. It will be impossible to solve the climate crisis without also transforming the way we produce our food and manage our land, according to the 2019 special report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Agriculture, forestry and other land use activities account for around 13% of CO2, 44% of methane, and 81% of nitrous oxide emissions from human activities globally. Land is critically important both as a source of these greenhouse gas emissions and as a solution for recapturing carbon. Other main takeaways from the expert panel include:
- Ecosystems on land have absorbed almost a third of all human-caused carbon dioxide emissions, but this carbon sink is now in peril because of the way we use and mismanage our land.
- Poor land use – e.g. destruction of forests, intensive farming, and emissions from meat production – is behind almost a quarter of the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions. Emissions produced across the entire food supply chain, from food production and processing to storage, transportation, and delivery, account for 21-37% of all human-made greenhouse gases.
- If, however, soils and forests are allowed to regenerate, they will efficiently store carbon, diminish the negative effects of animal husbandry (especially cattle and other ruminants) and reduce food waste. Proper land use management could, in other words, play a significant role in tackling the climate crisis
Why half a degree of global warming is a big deal
In its 2018 report, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) asserts that limiting global warming to 1.5ºC is feasible and affordable, but will require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented effort on a global scale. The report also makes clear that the difference between 1.5°C and 2°C warming – the upper limit to which governments committed in the 2016 Paris Agreement – is dramatic, and that an extra half degree will have a far graver impact on people’s homes, jobs, and lives. Some key findings from the report include:
Human activity has already caused approximately 1.0°C of global warming above pre-industrial levels. Between 2030 and 2050, that figure will likely rise to 1.5ºC if emissions continue to increase at the current rate.
Two degrees of warming, compared with 1.5%, will provoke a much greater reduction in crop yields, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and Central and South America. The extra half degree also nearly doubles the chances that Insects, which are vital for pollination of crops and other plants, will lose the majority of their habitats.
Even modest amounts of warming may push both human societies and natural ecosystems past critical thresholds for catastrophic change.
IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 °C (SR15). 2018
Interactive presentation of the impacts of climate change at 1.5C, 2C and beyond:
Humans are driving one million species to extinction, and agriculture is one of the major culprits
Ecosystems across the globe are degrading at rates unprecedented in human history — and the rate of species extinction is accelerating, with dire consequences for both ecosystems and human societies. This is the conclusion of a landmark report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). In total, up to one million plant and animal species face extinction, many within decades, because of expanding monocultures and other human interventions. Without drastic action to conserve habitats, the rate of species extinction will only increase. Key results from the report include:
- More than a third of the world’s land surface and nearly 75% of freshwater resources are now dedicated to crop or livestock production.
- Land degradation has reduced the productivity of 23% of the global land surface, and up to US$577 billion in annual global crops are at risk from pollinator loss.
- In 2015, 93% of marine fish stocks were either fully fished or overfished and only 7% were harvested at sustainable levels.
Food matters to all the UN global goals
In September 2015, the 193 member states of the UN committed to 17 global goals for sustainable developments (SDGs), including no poverty and zero hunger by 2030. Sustainable food production has great potential for achieving these, while also revitalizing the rural landscape, fuelling inclusive economic growth, and driving positive human development. In other words, getting it right on food is directly or indirectly connected to all of the UN Global Goals. This message has been reiterated in a number of recent international reports by the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and others. Some examples of the links between food and the SDGs include:
- Proper nourishment helps children learn better (SDG4), encourages healthy and productive lives (SDG3) and spurs societal prosperity (SDG8)
- Sustainable agriculture, fisheries, and aquaculture, will enable present and future generations to increase their capacity to feed a growing population without harming water, climate, ecosystems or biodiversity (SDG 6, 13, 14, 15)
- The food sector is the world’s biggest employer and the largest economic sector for many countries (SDG8. It also provides nutrition (SDG2) and income for the extremely poor (SDG10)
“Transforming food and agriculture to achieve the SDGs – 20 interconnected actions to guide decision-makers”
The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2019
Rockström, J., Williams, J., Daily, G. et al. 2016. Sustainable intensification of agriculture for human prosperity and global sustainability. Ambio doi:10.1007/s13280-016-0793-6