KANSAS CITY — A synthesis report from World Resources Institute released Dec. 5 titled “Creating a Sustainable Food Future” proposes a five-course “menu” with 22 solutions that it says would sustainably feed a projected global population of 9.8 billion by 2050 while avoiding deforestation and helping to stabilize the climate, promote economic development and reduce poverty.
Achievement of the goals requires the closing of the food gap, the land gap and the greenhouse gas (G.H.G.) mitigation gap, the study said. The report’s 22-item “menu for a sustainable food future” was divided into five “courses” that would work to close the three gaps.
The first course of reducing growth in demand for food and other agricultural products called for reducing food loss and waste, shifting to healthier, more sustainable diets, avoiding competition from bioenergy for food crops and land, and achieving replacement-level fertility rates.
The second course of increasing food production without expanding agricultural land included increasing livestock and pasture productivity, improving crop breeding, improving soil and water management, planting existing cropland more frequently, and adapting to climate change.
The third course was protecting and restoring natural ecosystems and limiting agricultural land-shifting. Needed were the linking of productivity gains with protection of natural ecosystems, limiting cropland expansion to lands with low environmental opportunity costs, reforesting agricultural lands with little intensification potential, and conserving and restoring peatlands.
The fourth course of increasing fish supply included improving wild fishery management and improving productivity and environmental performance of aquaculture.
The fifth course was reducing G.H.G. emissions from agricultural production. Reducing G.H.G. emissions would require reducing enteric fermentation through new technologies, improved manure management for both confined and pasture raised animals and increasing nitrogen use efficiency. Also needed would be adoption of emissions-reducing rice management and varieties, increasing agricultural energy efficiency and a shift to non-fossil fuels, and implementation of realistic options to sequester carbon in soils.
“On the one hand, the challenge of simultaneously closing these three gaps is harder than often recognized,” the report’s authors said. “On the other hand, the scope of potential solutions is often underestimated.”
The study included prior forecasts of a global population of 9.8 billion by 2050, growing incomes across the developing world and an increase in food demand by about 56% (the food gap), including demand for animal-based foods (milk and meat) growing by 68%.
Authors of the report noted that there was no “silver bullet” to closing the gaps needed to feed the population by 2050.
Seven major themes came out of the W.R.I. report:
Raise productivity. The study concluded that “increased efficiency of natural resource use is the single most important step toward meeting both food production and environmental goals,” which means crop yields need to increase at higher-than-historical rates and milk and meat production per hectare of pasture, per animal and per kilogram of fertilizer need to increase dramatically.
Manage demand. Slowing demand growth requires reducing food loss and waste, shifting diets of high-meat consumers toward plant-based foods, avoiding expansion of biofuels and improving women’s access to education and health care in Africa to increase voluntary reductions in fertility levels.
Link agricultural intensification with natural ecosystems protection. Current agricultural land area is expanding as well as shifting between and within regions, the report said, which has increased G.H.G. emissions and a loss of biodiversity. Governments must link efforts to boost crop and pasture yields with legal protection of forests, savannas and peatlands from conversion to agriculture to ensure that food production is increased through yield growth and not expansion or shifting.
Moderate ruminant meat consumption. Ruminant livestock (cattle, sheep, goats) use two-thirds of global agricultural land and contribute about half of agricultural production emissions, yet provide only about 3% of calories, according to the study.
“Closing the land and G.H.G. mitigation gaps requires that, by 2050, the 20% of the world’s population who would otherwise be high ruminant-meat consumers reduce their average consumption by 40% relative to their consumption in 2010,” the study said.
Target reforestation and peatland restoration. The study said rewetting of lightly farmed, drained peatlands that make up only about 0.3% of global agricultural land and reforesting some marginal and hard-to-improve grazing land were necessary to hold the temperature rise to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius but was achievable “only if the world succeeds in reducing projected growth in demand for resource-intensive agricultural products and boosting crop and livestock yields.”
Require production-related climate mitigation. Incentives and regulations “deployed at scale” are needed to reduce G.H.G. emissions from enteric fermentation by ruminants, manure, nitrogen fertilizers and energy use, the study said.
Spur technological innovation. Good potential already has been shown in this area, but “large increases in R.&D. funding and flexible regulations that encourage private industry to develop and market new technologies” are needed, the study said, noting opportunities in both livestock and crop sectors, including “a revolution in molecular biology” that “opens up new opportunities for crop breeding.”
W.R.I. is a global research organization that focuses on environment, economic opportunity and human well-being with a vision of “an equitable and prosperous planet driven by the wise management of natural resources … where the actions of government, business and communities combine to eliminate poverty and sustain the natural environment for all people.”
Partners in the study were World Bank Group, United Nations Environment, United Nations Development Programme, CIRAD (a French research center that works with developing countries on international agricultural and development issues) and the French National Institute for Agricultural Research. Funders included the United Nations, the World Bank, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Lead author of the study was Tim Searchinger, of W.R.I. and Princeton University, along with Richard Waite, Craig Hanson and Janet Ranganathan, all with W.R.I. Lead modeler was Patrice Dumas with CHIRAD, and editor was Emily Matthews with W.R.I.
In its work, W.R.I. focuses on six issues — climate, energy, food, forests, water and cities and transportation. The group’s first major publication, “An Assessment of the Resource Base that Supports the Global Economy,” was issued in 1986. Subsequent editions have been published at regular intervals, providing in-depth analyses of issues ranging from human health and the environment to climate change, ecosystem services and environmental governance. Periodic reports have been issued by W.R.I. for the last six years under the Creating a Sustainable Food Future umbrella, culminating with the synthesis report just released. A copy of the report is available at www.wri.org/sustfoodfuture.