Editorial Team
January 11th, 2022
We have an opportunity to feed the world in a sustainable way, but imminent action will be needed.

Companies, organisations and scientists must work together in the same direction: to produce more while being more sustainable.

A report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) warns of the increasing degradation of soil and water resources over the last decade and the difficulties in feeding 10 billion people in 30 years.

In the next 30 years, nearly 10 billion people will inhabit our planet, some 2 billion more than today, according to UN projections. In order to have food for all by 2050 and achieve the second Sustainable Development Goal (SDG), which is to end hunger by 2030, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) argues in its report The State of the World's Land and Water Resources for Food and Agriculture.

Systems at the Limit (SOLAW 2021) that agriculture will need to produce twice as much food as in 2012, the reference year chosen for this estimate. This will be a major challenge, according to the data and conclusions of this document published last Thursday.

We’re facing uncertainty generated in agriculture, livestock and fisheries by extreme weather phenomena caused by climate change, together with the loss of biodiversity and progressive degradation of the soil, i.e. less productivity, and water scarcity, mainly as a result of human action.

The fear of reaching a point in history when there are too many mouths to feed, and not enough resources to do so, has been around since at least the 18th century. It was then that Thomas Malthus published his Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), in which he claimed that there would come a day when the population would be greater than the means of subsistence.

In 2011, the FAO published the first study of its kind (SOLAW 2011) and its pages already warned of the risk to many farming systems. Ten years later, the deterioration has continued and worsened.

As the 2021 report indicates, of the 11.477 billion hectares of global land cover, the biophysical condition - a set of indicators of overall soil health - of 5.67 billion hectares is worsening and 1.66 billion hectares (34% of agricultural land) is being degraded by human activity. Every year, 4,000 km³ (10% of the total) of the world's inland renewable water is withdrawn from rivers and aquifers, and global per capita inland renewable water resources have been reduced by 20% between 2000 and 2018.

Water stress, i.e. freshwater withdrawals in proportion to available resources, is increasing slightly each year and currently stands at 18.4%, according to SDG indicator 6.4.2 - in 2000 it was 15.4%.

No single solution is sufficient to avoid overshooting the planet's limits," explains Marco Springmann, a researcher at Oxford University's Future of Food Programme and lead author of the study. However, when solutions are implemented together, research indicates that it may be possible to feed the growing population in a sustainable way.

Taking Action

Springmann says there is salvation, but we need to take action: "Without concerted action, we estimate that the environmental impacts of the food system could increase by 50-90% by 2050 as a result of population growth and increased diets rich in fats, sugars and meat. In that case, all planetary limits related to food production would be exceeded, some of them by more than double".

Using this data, the researchers analysed various options that could keep the food system within environmental limits. They point to the need for three key actions:

1. Changing to a More Plant-Based Diet

Climate change cannot be sufficiently mitigated without changing our diets to be more plant-based. Adopting "flexitarian" diets - where meat consumption is sporadic - globally could cut greenhouse gas emissions by more than half, and also reduce other environmental impacts, such as fertiliser application and the use of cropland and freshwater, by a tenth to a quarter.

2. Enhanced Agricultural Practices

Researchers also point out, in addition to dietary changes, improved agricultural practices and technologies are needed to limit pressure on soil, freshwater withdrawal and fertiliser use. Increasing agricultural yields on existing cropland, balancing fertiliser application and recycling, and improving water management could, along with other measures, reduce these impacts by about half.

3. Reduce Food Waste

Finally, halving food loss and waste is necessary to keep the food system within acceptable limits. Halving food loss and waste could if achieved globally, reduce environmental impacts by up to one-sixth (16%).

The study suggests that only by implementing the three measures effectively worldwide can we have a sustainable scenario in three decades. Needless to say, important policy measures will have to be taken.

Improving agricultural technologies and management practices will require greater investment in research and public infrastructure, designing appropriate incentive schemes for farmers, including support mechanisms for adopting best available practices, and better regulation of, for example, fertiliser use and water quality.