It sounds rather wonky (and we admit it IS a forkful of wonk), but a fine new paper from the World Resources Institute (WRI) should make us feel better about the potential to shift food production to a “sustainable food future.” We suggest you give it a look—especially if you’re involved with any food production and delivery systems (such as owning or working in a restaurant, being concerned about the way your child eats at school, or simply trying to shift your family to more farm-to-fork habits that support sustainable, ethical food production).
Otherwise, when you look at projected world population growth, we’re all doomed to live on a planet much depleted of natural ecosystems because they’ve all been cleared and turned over to food production. We’ve been hearing reports for decades about the disastrous agricultural “strip mining” of the Amazon rain forest. When you scale that up globally, further eco-disasters await.
“Shifting Diets for a Sustainable Food Future” is a working paper, and it's free and easy to download. It explains the challenge that faces us:
At least 3 billion more people are expected to enter the global middle class by 2030, and two-thirds of the global population is projected to live in cities by mid-century. A wealthier, more urban global population will likely demand more food per capita—and more resource-intensive foods such as meat and dairy. Without successful measures to restrain the consumption of resource-intensive foods by the world’s affluent or to reduce waste, sufficiently feeding the world will require worldwide annual crop production in 2050 to be more than 70 percent higher than 2006 levels.”
Too often we hear that the answer lies in increased food production; a ramp-up of the “Green Revolution” thanks to better breeding, husbandry, GMOs, and other technology-based solutions.
Efforts to feed a growing and increasingly affluent population have primarily focused on increasing food production, rather than addressing consumption. However, if the world were to rely solely on increased production to close the food gap, there would be enormous pressure to clear the world’s remaining tropical forests and other natural ecosystems to expand croplands and pasturelands. For example, to avoid further expansion of harvested area, the annual average increase in crop yields from 2006 to 2050 would need to be about one-third more than in the previous 44-year period (1962 to 2006)—a period that encompassed the Green Revolution.”
So what’s the answer? “Shifting Diets...” calls it “A Menu of Solutions” ranging from increasing existing cropland productivity to reducing food waste to—the ultimate—shifting diets in three ways:
1. REDUCE OVERCONSUMPTION OF CALORIES.
While reducing overweight and obesity is important for human health, this diet shift contributed less to reducing agriculture’s resource use and environmental impacts than the other two shifts.
2. REDUCE OVERCONSUMPTION OF PROTEIN BY REDUCING CONSUMPTION OF ANIMAL-BASED FOODS.
This diet shift resulted in the largest benefits, as it applied to a relatively large population and across all animal-based foods.
3. REDUCE BEEF CONSUMPTION SPECIFICALLY.
This diet shift resulted in significant benefits, and would be relatively easy to implement, since it only affects one type of food. Additionally, some high-consuming countries have already reduced per person beef consumption from historical highs, suggesting that further change is possible.
In the past many discussions of food have centered on what’s good and bad for people The sustainable food and environmental movements need not rely somuch on demonizing animal protein, for example, by saying it’s “unhealthful,” but rather by promoting diet shifts to protein sources that are clearly good for people and the planet. We appreciate the “shift” detailed by WRI, and will continue to report in The Well on specific innovations we can each make to help in personal, community, national and global ways.
You might also want to share this paper with your elected officials on all levels. Ask what they’re doing about this call to action. And then look in the mirror. See below for how one writer has “tweaked” his diet—and you can do the same to yours. It’s a start!
- Shifting Diets for a Sustainable Food Future via World Resources Institute
- How I Tweaked My Diet to Cut its Environmental Footprint in Half via a Food Politics blog by Richard Waite