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