Increasing plant-based food consumption is one of the keys to sustainably feeding the growing global population, according to a new study funded by the EAT Forum and non-profit Wellcome. Other changes that the researchers say must be adopted to feed the world include increasing the sustainability of global agricultural practices and halving food waste worldwide.
“It has to be a combination,” says study co-author Wim de Vries of Wageningen University. “With just one of these measures we will not make it without exceeding environmental boundaries.”
FoodNavigator-USA defines environmental or planetary boundaries as “the safe operating space for humanity beyond which Earth’s vital systems could become unstable.” According to the researchers, their study is the first to quantify the human population's effect on these boundaries.
The researchers note that if the recommended changes to our food system are not made, environmental impacts could increase by 50 to 90 percent by 2050, and all planetary boundaries related to food production would be surpassed.
“If socioeconomic changes towards Western consumption patterns continue, the environmental pressures of the food system are likely to intensify, and humanity may soon approach the planetary boundaries for global freshwater use, change in land use, and ocean acidification,” the study reads.
“Beyond those boundaries, ecosystems could be at risk of being destabilized and losing the regulation functions on which populations depend.”
Sustainable agriculture practices recommended by the researchers to counteract this effect on planetary boundaries include recycling fertilizers and improving water management.
Today, animal agriculture is the second-largest contributor to human-made greenhouse gases and uses sixteen percent of global freshwater, according to Climate Nexus. One report, published in March, found that replacing all animal-based food items with plant-based replacements could feed an additional 350 million people.
An estimated one-third of all food produced globally is lost due to food waste, either before it reaches retail markets or within households.
The researchers completed their study under the assumption that the global population will rise to 10 billion by 2050. This projection was established in 2017 by the United Nations; the same research projected that the world population will reach 11.2 billion by 2100.
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