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How to Feed 10 Billion by 2050 Without Destroying the Planet
By 2050, there will be 10 billion people on the earth, and global income will triple. Feeding more people with more money will increase the environmental pressures put on the planet by the global food system by between 50 and 92 percent. If nothing is done, those pressures will push Earth "beyond the planetary boundaries that define a safe operating space for humanity."
That's the starting point of a major new study published in Nature Wednesday that is the first to quantify how food production and consumption impacts the planet's ability to sustain human life.
The food system gobbles up planetary resources in four key ways:
- It is a major contributor to climate change.
- Land use changes required for farming drive biodiversity loss.
- Agriculture uses up lots of fresh water.
- Nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizer pollute land and water.
Luckily, the study also mapped a way out of this mess.
"Feeding a world population of 10 billion is possible, but only if we change the way we eat and the way we produce food," research participant professor Johan Rockström at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany told The Guardian. "Greening the food sector or eating up our planet: this is what is on the menu today."
The researchers found that greening the food sector depends on three major changes.
To keep warming below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the world will have to change how it eats. What that means is different for the population at large and for people in wealthy countries like the U.S., but overall, researchers recommended a "flexitarian" diet that eschews meat in favor of beans and nuts.
For people in the U.S., that will mean:
- Eating 90 percent less beef, pork and lamb
- Eating 60 percent less poultry, milk and sugar
- Eating five times more lentils
- Eating more than four times more nuts and seeds
It's not just about how much we eat, but about how much we throw away. The researchers found that cutting food waste in half would reduce the environmental impacts of agriculture by 16 percent, BBC News reported.
"Tackling food loss and waste will require measures across the entire food chain, from storage, and transport, over food packaging and labeling to changes in legislation and business behavior that promote zero-waste supply chains," Fabrice de Clerck, the director of science at food-system think tank EAT, which funded the study, told BBC News.
In order to reduce the environmental footprint of food production, farming techniques themselves have to be changed. The study recommended increasing the yields on existing cropland, improving water use and storage and reducing or recycling fertilizer.
The agricultural changes required mean that altering our food system for the better isn't just a matter of consumer choice.
"People can make a personal difference by changing their diet, but also by knocking on the doors of their politicians and saying we need better environmental regulations—that is also very important. Do not let politicians off the hook," research leader and University of Oxford scientist Marco Springmann told The Guardian.
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By Will Sarni
It is far too easy to view scarcity and poor quality of water as issues solely affecting emerging economies. While the images of women and children fetching water in Africa and a lack of access to water in India are deeply disturbing, this is not the complete picture.
The Past is No Longer a Guide to the Future
We get ever closer to "day zeros" — the point at when municipal water supplies are switched off — and tragedies such as Flint. These are not isolated stories. Instead they are becoming routine, and the public sector and civil society are scrambling to address them. We are seeing "day zeros" in South Africa, India, Australia and elsewhere, and we are now detecting lead contamination in drinking water in cities across the U.S.
"Day zero" is the result of water planning by looking in the rear-view mirror. The past is no longer a guide to the future; water demand has outstripped supplies because we are tied to business-as-usual planning practices and water prices, and this goes hand-in-hand with the inability of the public sector to factor the impacts of climate change into long-term water planning. Lead in drinking water is the result of lead pipe service lines that have not been replaced and in many cases only recently identified by utilities, governments and customers. An estimated 22 million people in the US are potentially using lead water service lines. This aging infrastructure won't repair or replace itself.
One of the most troubling aspects of the global water crisis is that those least able to afford access to water are also the ones who pay a disproportionately high percentage of their income for it. A report by WaterAid revealed that a standard water bill in developed countries is as little as 0.1 percent of the income of someone earning the minimum wage, while in a country like Madagascar a person reliant on a tanker truck for their water supply would spend as much as 45 percent of their daily income on water to get just the recommended daily minimum supply. In Mozambique, families relying on black-market vendors will spend up to 100 times as much on water as those reached by government-subsidized water supplies.
Finally, we need to understand that the discussion of a projected gap between supply and demand is misleading. There is no gap, only poor choices around allocation. The wealthy will have access to water, and the poor will pay more for water of questionable quality. From Flint residents using bottled water and paying high water utility rates, to the poor in South Africa waiting in line for their allocation of water — inequity is everywhere.
Water Inequity Requires Global Action — Now.
These troubling scenarios beg the obvious question: What to do? We do know that ongoing reports on the 'water crisis' are not going to catalyze action to address water scarcity, poor quality, access and affordability. Ensuring the human right to water feels distant at times.
We need to mobilize an ecosystem of stakeholders to be fully engaged in developing and scaling solutions. The public sector, private sector, NGOs, entrepreneurs, investors, academics and civil society must all be engaged in solving water scarcity and quality problems. Each stakeholder brings unique skills, scale and speed of impact (for example, entrepreneurs are fast but lack scale, while conversely the public sector is slow but has scale).
We also urgently need to change how we talk about water. We consistently talk about droughts happening across the globe — but what we are really dealing with is an overallocation of water due to business-as-usual practices and the impacts of climate change.
We need to democratize access to water data and actionable information. Imagine providing anyone with a smartphone the ability to know, on a real-time basis, the quality of their drinking water and actions to secure safe water. Putting this information in the hands of civil society instead or solely relying on centralized regulatory agencies and utilities will change public policies.
Will Sarni is the founder and CEO of Water Foundry.
Note: This post also appears on the World Economic Forum.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.
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