Agriculture needs an overhaul
“When looking at the status of planet Earth and the influence of current global agriculture practices upon it, there’s a lot of reason to worry, but also reason for hope – if we see decisive actions very soon,” Dieter Gerten says, lead author from PIK and professor at Humboldt University of Berlin wrote in a press release announcing the research. “ We appropriate too much land for crops and livestock, fertilize too heavily and irrigate too extensively. To solve this issue in the face of a still growing world population, we collectively need to rethink how to produce food. "
The team of researchers set out to tackle the problem of feeding a growing population while adhering to strict standards of environmental sustainability. Using sophisticated simulation models, the researchers looked at foods' impact on biosphere integrity, land-system change, freshwater use, and nitrogen flows. They were then able to pinpoint where and how many environmental boundaries are being violated with the current system to produce food and how it can be reverted via more sustainable agriculture
“We find that currently, agriculture in many regions is using too much water, land, or fertilizer. Production in these regions thus needs to be brought into line with environmental sustainability," said Johan Rockström, director of PIK. "Yet, there are huge opportunities to sustainably increase agricultural production in these and other regions. This goes for large parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, where more efficient water and nutrient management could strongly improve yields.”
Consumers have to do their part too
The researchers noted that sustainable agriculture also increases climate resilience and reduces global warming. Some places in the world, even the most sustainable systems may not be enough. Those places include the Middle East, Indonesia, and Central Europe. International trade will be the key way to ensure sustainability when feeding the world in those areas, noted the researchers.
On the consumer side of things, the researchers said it will require a big shift to a sustainable food system. For instance, with meat consumption rising in China, the animal proteins would need to be replaced by more legumes and vegetables. There also has to be a greater focus on food waste, which the researchers said accounts for 30% of all the food loss in the world.
"Changes like this might seem hard to chew at first. But in the long run, dietary changes towards a more sustainable mix on your plate will not only benefit the planet, but also people’s health”, adds Vera Heck from PIK.“This situation clearly calls for resolute policy measures to set incentives right on both the producers’ and consumers’ ends."