The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!
Researchers Say Only Way to Guarantee Enough Food in 2050 Is if the World Turns Vegan
It is possible to produce enough food to feed a growing population without another tree being felled, according to new research. But there’s a catch.
The only way to guarantee enough food in 2050 is if the world turns vegan, says the study published Tuesday in Nature Communications. That way, even the most pessimistic projections for technological improvements and availability of farmland wouldn’t see people going hungry.
With a global transition to veganism unlikely, the study explores the options left on the table if we continue to eat meat, as well as how climate change might narrow those options further.
The study is more of a thought experiment than a realistic set of projections. But the point it makes is simple: We, as humans, must work out how to make the most appropriate use of a finite amount of land. While there will inevitably be compromises, the paper concludes:
“Deforestation is not a precondition for supplying the world with sufficient food in terms of quantity and quality in 2050.”
Whether for growing crops, grazing or building on, 75 percent of the Earth’s ice-free surface is used in one way or another by humans, today’s study begins. Put another way, only a quarter is left in something resembling its natural state.
Land-based ecosystems house a large fraction of the world’s biodiversity, as well as providing food, fuel, energy, air and water purification and protection against the elements for humans.
Forests, in particular, also play an important role in mitigating climate change. The paper notes:
“Forests store more carbon than any other land-cover type per unit area.”
The starting point for the study is a hypothetical world in which the global population recognizes the intrinsic value of our remaining forests and halts to deforestation.
The authors look at the projected global population in 2050 and work out what options exist for ensuring the supply of food meets demand, without encroaching on any forested land.
As well as a global average, the study considers whether supply meets demand in 11 distinct regions of the world. These include, for example, sub-Saharan Africa, North America, Western Europe and Southeast Asia.
The authors express food demand in kilocalories per capita per day and the base projections are in line with estimates from the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).
Regarding the consequence of a growing population on demand for cereals, roots, sugar crops, pulses, oil crops, and fruit and vegetables, the paper explains:
“Safeguarding the existing forests constrains agricultural development as it limits the expansion of cropland and grazing areas. Consequently, the increasing demand for food, feed, fibre and fuel of a growing world population will have to be met on shrinking per capita land areas.”
Options on the Table
The study examines how various different factors combine to affect whether or not demand is met in 2050. These include the expansion of farmland (ranging between 11-70 percent compared to 2000), the size of crop yields (high, low or business-as-usual) and the composition of human diet (ranging from heavy meat consumption through to veganism).
Of 500 pathways, each featuring a unique combination of these factors, 289 are likely to produce enough food while still staying within the study’s “zero-deforestation” limits.
According to the study’s results, 100 percent of scenarios that exclude all livestock manage to supply enough food to meet demand in 2050. In other words, if the whole world becomes vegan, the global population in 2050 could eat enough without another tree being cut down.
The same would be true if the whole world turned vegetarian, assuming the area available for crops expands more than about 22 percent compared to 2000 levels. The paper says:
“A vegan or vegetarian diet is associated with only half the cropland demand, grazing intensity and overall biomass harvest of comparable meat-based human diets.”
Assuming the world neither turns vegan nor vegetarian, what options are left? The study explores various options for continuing to eat meat, while still keeping our forests in tact.
The many permutations of different types of livestock (cows, pigs, chickens etc), what they’re fed on and the grazing intensity make for a pretty complex picture.
Broadly-speaking, if the diet of North America in 2000 were to prevail globally in 2050, only scenarios in which technological advancements produce very high yields or where a large share of high quality grazing land is given over to cropland provide enough food.
Scenarios that see global food demand and diets in different regions rise in line with FAO forecasts for 2050—representing a “business-as-usual” scenario—provide enough food in all but the lowest yielding scenarios with little cropland expansion.
The study does not explicitly model the impact of climate change on food production or how it affects the results presented above. This was a deliberate choice because the severity of the consequences is uncertain, says lead author Prof. Karl-Heinz Erb from Alpen-Adria University in Vienna. He tells Carbon Brief:
“We have general effects that are not well-known and it is unclear which one is stronger.”
Erb explains that where nutrients and water are freely available, higher atmospheric CO2 could increase plant growth—an effect known as CO2 fertilization. Lengthening growing seasons could be another consequence of rising temperature. But, Erb adds:
“On the other hand, the shift in climate patterns could lead to to increased occurrence of extreme events (e.g droughts) and, so, reduce yields.”
Instead, the paper makes a general point about the consequence of low yields, saying:
“Apparently, the increased area demand resulting from low yields renders scenarios with richer diets unfeasible.”
As a reasonable approximation to climate change, the authors point to their “organic” scenario, in which crop yields per harvest are 40 percent lower compared to industrial agriculture. Erb explains:
“Organic farming is at the lower end of the possible yield level.”
The study’s organic route is only likely to be able to support the FAO’s business-as-usual meat-eating scenario out to 2050 if cropland expands at least 20 percent on 2000 levels. No scenarios allow for an organic approach to food production and global adoption of a North American style diet, the study suggests.
On the climate-benefits of organic agriculture more generally, the paper explains:
“[T]he benefits from increased soil carbon stocks of organic agriculture can be annihilated by the larger area demand resulting from lower yields of organic agriculture. In this regard, the massive greenhouse gas emission costs associated with the expansion of cropland into grazing land, currently not well documented, will be crucial.”
While the study attempts to discuss the impacts of climate change in its vision of a zero-deforestation world, the real situation will be far more complicated, says Prof. Andy Challinor, professor of climate impacts with expertise in food security at the University of Leeds. He tells Carbon Brief:
“Climate change is not only about low yields, it’s about increased variability. This isn’t assessed at all in the new study.”
Simply comparing organic agriculture to climate change impacts misses the very important impacts of extreme weather events on crop production. Challinor adds:
“The fact that the impacts are complicated and often have no simple numerical answer is not a reason to ignore these important effects.”
Erb acknowledges the shortcoming in his study’s discussion of climate change, telling Carbon Brief the comparison with the organic pathway is “guess-working.”
There are other simplifications and elements that make the study purely hypothetical, too. For example, it assumes that shortfalls in regional food production can be met through international trade. As the paper explains, the reality is likely to be quite different:
“Socioeconomic barriers or obstacles to biomass trade, which could result from subsidy systems, tariffs or other regulations, could narrow the options space by rendering more scenarios unfeasible.”
As such, the study is intended more as a vehicle to provoke conversation than to elicit concrete recommendations. Indeed, the authors say the paper:
“It is not aimed at exploring probabilities and it does not support straightforward conclusions regarding the desirability, political practicability or sustainability performance of different scenarios.”
The simple point the authors make is about the trade-offs between quality and quantity of food production in a deforestation-constrained world.
YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Jennifer Molidor, PhD
Climate change, habitat loss and pollution are overwhelming our planet. Thankfully, these enormous threats are being met by a bold new wave of environmental activism.
Trump Makes Strange Claim About Water Efficient Toilets: 'People Are Flushing Toilets 10 Times, 15 Times'
President Donald Trump mocked water-efficiency standards in new constructions last week. Trump said, "People are flushing toilets 10 times, 15 times, as opposed to once. They end up using more water. So, EPA is looking at that very strongly, at my suggestion." Trump asked the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for a federal review of those standards since, he claimed with no evidence, that they are making bathrooms unusable and wasting water, as NBC News reported.
By Carey Gillam
Former Monsanto Chairman and CEO Hugh Grant will have to testify in person at a St. Louis-area trial set for January in litigation brought by a cancer-stricken woman who claims her disease was caused by exposure to the company's Roundup herbicide and that Monsanto covered up the risks instead of warning consumers.
A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.
"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."
The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.
My god, White Island volcano in New Zealand erupted today for first time since 2001. My family and I had gotten off it 20 minutes before, were waiting at our boat about to leave when we saw it. Boat ride home tending to people our boat rescued was indescribable. #whiteisland pic.twitter.com/QJwWi12Tvt— Michael Schade (@sch) December 9, 2019
Michael Schade / Twitter
At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.
The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.
Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.
"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."
Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.
Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.
"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.
"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."
The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.
Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.
- New Evidence Suggests Ancient Egypt Was Brought Down by ... ›
- Climate Change Could Set Off Volcanoes - EcoWatch ›
- U.S. Has 18 'Very High Threat' Volcanoes - EcoWatch ›
- Scientists Discover 91 Volcanoes Hidden Under Antarctic Ice Sheet ... ›