The Challenge

Keeping a growing world population alive and well-nourished – without destroying the planet

We live in the Anthropocene, a planetary epoch defined by humanity’s impact on the Earth’s geology, climate and ecosystems. Our food systems represent an important part of that impact, and place 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 also accounts for 40% of global land usage and 70% of all freshwater withdrawal, and contributes significantly to the pollution of soil, waterways, and the oceans. Even more alarmingly, it is the single most important driver of biodiversity loss. 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 reaching 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 precarious 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 agriculture 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.
Food production depletes freshwater resources and, because agriculture relies heavily on chemicals, 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, impairing resiliency.

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

Food figures in all the UN Sustainable Development Goals

The quest for nourishment shapes evolution, drives other major biological phenomena, and affects all levels and facets of life. As such, it 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.

The food system has to be reinvented – urgently!

To protect the biosphere and ensure a sustainable food supply in the long term, we must re-think, re-shape and re-engineer the food system at every link along its chain, from agriculture and other primary forms of production, through processing, transportation and distribution, to consumption and waste management. We must secure a safe operating space for our global food system. This is an existential issue that must be addressed now.

According to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC] a dramatically short period of time – 11-15 years – remains before climate tipping points are reached. Other threats to the integrity and health of the biosphere are approaching critical thresholds equally quickly—and may have transgressed them already. Existing strategies to shift the calamitous trajectory of our food system, like developing alternatives to chemically driven monoculture farming, or reducing excessive global transport for year-around 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.

Around the world, people and institutions are responding to the existential challenge posed by our food system with new ideas and groundbreaking efforts. They deserve our full attention and support. And the best should be rewarded.