A study published today in the journal Nature Climate Change used models to predict the state of Earth, the number of humans, and their food requirements in the year 2050. The study used current statistics of human populations, how much land these populations use for farming, how efficient their farming practices are, the emissions they produce, and how much of the food products are wasted, to predict the requirements of the future. To feed the 9.6 billion humans that will be here in 2050, we will a) have to drastically increase our farmland, destroying much life, and b) surpass global targets for greenhouse gas emissions. But, as always, plants are the solution.
I will present this article in a story structure by introducing the characters and context, the rising action, the complication, and finally, the resolution.
We humans are the characters. And Earth – the only rock in the universe known to bear life – is the context.
Populations are snowballs. As snowballs grow, their surface becomes larger; they collect more snow and grow yet faster. In 1800, there were one billion humans. It took over 120 years to reach two billion people. Now, it takes just a dozen years to add an additional billion people to the Earth. Today we have around seven billion people, and by 2050, an expected 9.6 billion.
With our current farming yields, by 2050 we will not be able to feed 9.6 billion people. But, currently, we are not farming at maximum efficiency – some farms do not fulfill their potential yield. We can shift these farms into a state of optimum efficiency and ‘close the gap’ between current productivity and ideal productivity. Maybe this is the solution?
The current study showed that if we closed the yield gaps of all farm land on Earth, completely optimising efficiency by the year 2050 (just 35 years from now), we would still not produce enough food to feed the population. Apart from being hypothetical and insufficient, this ideal yield scenario has horrible consequences for the environment: increased fertiliser production, greenhouse gases and many more harmful by-products.
If increased productivity is not enough, what about increased land-use? To do this, we must destroy the environment. And agricultural expansion is the most efficient way to extinguish Earth’s biodiversity. The study showed that if we continue at our current rates of expansion, over the next 35 years we will carve out 1/10th of Earth’s untouched tropical rainforests to increase our farmland by 42%.
This projection also has serious implications for the atmosphere. Such an increase in farmland will produce more greenhouse gases than is sustainable, pushing us over the 2050 emissions target for the world’s entire economy (including transport).
Clearly we are trying to address the ‘supply and demand’ problem by fixating on the ‘supply’ end of the formula. Thankfully, the solution lies with the ‘demand’ end, and that means you. The current study recommends two simple factors that can be reduced: animal products and food wastage.
Animal products are a great anvil on the Earth’s resources. The Western diet is saturated with meat and dairy products, a diet that is quickly being adopted by the developing world. The Western world is also the largest waster of food. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has estimated that individuals from developed countries waste 100 kg of food a year. Estimates by the British Institution of Mechanical Engineers suggest that half of all food produced last year was wasted.
By reducing our food wastage and eating plants and plant products, we may still cater to our growing food requirements without eliminating large chunks of the Cosmos’ only known biodiversity. Not only will a plant-based diet reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, but it will extend our lifespans. Conveniently, what’s good for us is also good for the Earth. You and I are not just characters in Earth’s story, we are the authors, and we can write a happy ending…or a less horrible one at least.
Originally published at Thinkinc.org.au
Story source: sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/08/140831150209.
Research paper: Bojana Bajželj, Keith S. Richards, Julian M. Allwood, Pete Smith, John S. Dennis, Elizabeth Curmi, Christopher A. Gilligan. Importance of food-demand management for climate mitigation. Nature Climate Change, 2014; DOI:10.1038/nclimate2353