The challenge: tomorrow is too late

Keeping a growing world population alive and well-nourished – without destroying the planet. That's our challenge.

We should have started yesterday. Today, we have ten years at best to halt the speeding global warming, or we risk reaching irreversible climate tipping points – all according to the UN's Climate Panel (IPCC). Our food system is one of the worst contributing culprits. It’s an existential issue. We simply have to fix it.

“We’re starting to feel the impacts of today’s unsustainable food systems, both on global warming and on the basic functions of our planet. A food system shift is vital; it requires political will, ample funding, and the right ideas.”
Professor Johan Rockström, Co-chair, The Food Planet Prize

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, placing a mounting burden on the biosphere: the planet’s thin layer of life.

Today’s food system produces more than 25% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. It accounts for 40% of global land usage, and 70% of all freshwater withdrawal. It is a major source of polluting soil, waterways, and oceans. Even more alarmingly, it is the single most critical driver of biodiversity loss, with one million animal and plant species at risk of extinction. Already today, the global population stands at 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.

How do we avoid eating our way to the planet’s last supper?

We find ourselves in a paradoxical situation. We must feed this growing population, but our current food system poses a mounting threat to the environment that supports it. 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. The earth is theoretically capable of feeding 10 billion people, but not the way we do it today. If our ecosystems collapse, we face a future without food.

Despite some positive trends, too much of our food system is wasteful, polluting, or toxic – impacting air, land and water.

Agriculture produces more greenhouse gases than any other sector besides industry (at least 25% of the global emissions) – and moving foodstuffs across the globe only exacerbates the problem. What’s worse, one-third of all food produced is lost along the food-chain or goes to waste (representing 9% of the greenhouse emissions). The amount of greenhouse gas emissions from food waste corresponds to about two-thirds of what is emitted by the entire USA, the second-largest country emitter in the world, after China.

Animal husbandry uses more land (including fodder and pasture) than any other sector on the planet. And as meat consumption continues to rise, especially in developing economies, more and more land is turned over to it.

Read more about the food system’s land use

The planetary boundaries framework represents the boundaries for nine biophysical processes that regulate life support systems and the planet’s habitability. They define the space within which humanity can operate safely for generations to come. Today, we have transgressed four of the boundaries.

Food production depletes freshwater resources and, because agriculture relies heavily on chemicals, it contributes to the acidification and contamination of waterways and marine habitats. Based on monocultures, intensive agriculture threatens biodiversity in both the plant and animal kingdoms. Three crops – wheat, corn, and rice – account for more than half of the world’s caloric intake, and a large portion of these crops go to animal feed. In addition, fewer kinds of these crops are grown in increasingly similar cultivation systems, extending industrial monoculture while further reducing genetic variation. Meanwhile, other grains, fruits and vegetables available to us are being phased out, or outright lost, adding to impaired resiliency.

In total, one million species are now at risk of extinction due to human impact on the environment – a quantity and a pace exceeding the mass extinction that occurred during the Triassic and Jurassic periods 200 million years ago.

Read more about the loss of biodiversity here

Food figures in all the UN Sustainable Development Goals

The quest for nourishment shapes evolution and drives most biological phenomena. It affects all levels and facets of life, and connects, directly or indirectly, with all 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Established to protect and enhance our economies and societies, each of those goals, including “zero hunger by 2030”, depends on a healthy planet with a stable climate and a well-functioning biosphere. Current developments, including the COVID-19 pandemic, have reversed years of improvements towards these goals.

Read more about the UN Sustainable Development Goals here

Red alert. As things stand now, the world’s food system could get in the way of meeting the 1.5°C target

The food system has to be reinvented – urgently!

To protect the biosphere and ensure a sustainable food supply in the long term, we must rethink, reshape, and re-engineer the entire food system – at every link along its chain. That requires new solutions throughout – from agriculture and other primary forms of production, via processing, transportation, and distribution, to consumption and waste management. We have to secure a safe operating space for the global food system in all its complexity.

Reinventing our food system is an existential issue and it must be addressed now. According to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC] a dramatically short period – ten years, at best – remains before climate tipping points are reached. Other threats to the integrity and health of the biosphere are approaching critical thresholds equally fast – and may have transgressed them already.

Existing strategies to shift the trajectory of a failing food system, like developing alternatives to chemically driven monoculture farming, or reducing excessive global transport for year-round availability of seasonal products, are necessary but insufficient. To reverse the dire trend, we must supplement these efforts with radically innovative, and even disruptive solutions.

Read more about the IPCC Special Report here