Photograph by Luca Locatelli, Nat Geo Image Collection
Read Caption

A new reports looks at solutions to ensuring healthy diets for a burgeoning world population while improving the planet. Here, tomatoes are harvested at a large production facility in the Netherlands.

Photograph by Luca Locatelli, Nat Geo Image Collection

How to feed the world without destroying the planet

The world’s population will hit 10 billion in 2050. A new report offers solutions for how more food can be grown sustainably.

Ensuring healthy diets for an expected global population of nearly 10 billion people in 2050, while at the same time improving the world those people live in, will require sweeping changes to farming and how we produce food, according to a new report.

“There is a pathway to achieve this but the challenge is even bigger than any of us thought,” said Richard Waite of the World Resources Institute (WRI) and co-author of “Creating A Sustainable Food Future: Final Report.”

Agriculture already uses almost half of the world’s vegetated land. It consumes 90 percent of all the water used by humanity and generates one-quarter of the annual global emissions that are causing global warming. And yet of the seven billion people living today, 820 million are undernourished because they don’t have access to—or can’t afford—an adequate diet.

“We have to produce 30 percent more food on the same land area, stop deforestation, [and] cut carbon emissions for food production by two-thirds,” says Waite in an interview.

All of that must be done while reducing poverty levels and the loss of natural habitat, preventing freshwater depletion, and cutting pollution as well as other environmental impacts of farming.

“There is no silver bullet; To prevent more land from being converted into agriculture requires major improvements in feed quality and grazing management. It also requires finding ways to get more than one crop harvest per year, and requires better crop breeding techniques. For example, CRISP-R technology enables the fine tuning of genes to maximize yields. we need to do everything,” Waite says.

The “everything” Waite referred to are 22 solutions detailed in the 565 page report, all of which need to be implemented to some degree, depending on the country and region. Here are a few of the proposed solutions:

• Dramatically reduce the estimated one-third of food that is lost or wasted. From scaling up solar-powered cold-storage units on farms, to using natural compounds that inhibit bacterial growth and retain water in the fruit in order to extend shelf life at retail stores, improvements can be made all along the supply chain.

• Shift the diets of high-meat consumers toward plant-based foods. Meat, particularly from cattle, sheep, and goats, is very resource intensive. For growing populations to have access to some meat, others will have to consume less. There are now burgers made up of 20 to 35 percent mushroom and all-plant burgers that taste as good as, if not superior to, all-beef burgers, the report notes. It also says governments provide nearly $600 billion in annual subsidies to agriculture and those that favor meat and dairy production should be phased out.

• Boost crop yields and dramatically increase the output of milk and meat. To prevent more land from being used for agriculture will need major improvements in feed quality and grazing management. It also requires finding ways to get more than one crop harvest per year, which in turn will require better crop breeding techniques. For example, CRISP-R technology enables the fine tuning of genes to maximize yields.

• Improve wild fisheries management and aquaculture. Overfishing can be reduced by eliminating much of the $35 billion in annual global fisheries subsidies. Certification and better enforcement to eliminate illegal and unreported fishing could save an estimated 11 to 26 million tons of fish lost to it. Aquaculture can include the use of algae, seaweed, or oil seeds-based fish foods rather than relying on small fish to feed larger ones like salmon.

But is it enough?

“I don’t think the report truly represents the transformative change that the global food system needs to undergo,” says Hans Herren, President of the Washington-based Millennium Institute and winner of the World Food Prize for his work as an entomologist.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization and UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS), among others, endorse a so-called agroecological approach to food production, but the WRI report doesn’t mention it, Herren said in an interview.

Agroecology mimics nature, replacing the external inputs like chemical fertilizer with knowledge of how a combination of plants, trees, and animals can enhance the productivity of land.

By 2050, the world's population will likely increase 35 percent. But is growing more food the only option—or even the best? National Geographic investigates.

The CFS just released its own report looking at the issue of how to feed the world sustainably. It said agroecology encompasses whole agriculture and food systems from production to consumption and was increasingly seen as the way forward to create sustainable food systems. However, the report acknowledges that agriculture is extremely diverse and what works in one place may not in another.

Although the term agroecology isn’t used in WRI’s report, some of the solutions could be called that, said Waite. “I think overemphasis on agroecology as ‘the’ solution crowds out the very real needs for also advancing technological innovation,” he says.

Pollinators—the bees and other insects that pollinate food crops—are also largely missing in the WRI report. It does note that warmer temperatures are likely to cause early flower blooming before pollinators arrive, which reduces crop yields.

A larger concern is the growing lack of crop diversity in agriculture, which is often dominated by crops such as corn and soy. That puts pollinators at risk, a new study in Global Change Biology warns, because it severely limits their opportunity for nutrition. It recommends cultivating a variety of crops that bloom at different times to provide a more stable source of food and habitat for pollinators.

Useful ideas for food production

There isn’t a great deal new in the WRI report, said Danielle Nierenberg, President and Founder of Food Tank, a U.S. non-profit looking at solutions and environmentally sustainable ways of alleviating hunger, obesity, and poverty.

“I like the fact there are concrete messages with lots of useful ideas about the ways forward,” Nierenberg says in an interview.

Many of these are things we can do now to move to sustainable food production and things that will create more jobs and economic growth, she said.

Specifics aside, the world must act decisively, wrote Andrew Steer, president of the WRI, in the forward of the new report.

“Food production and ecosystem protection must be linked at every level—policy, finance, and farm practice—to avoid destructive competition for precious land and water,” Steer says.

Future of Food: Why Sustainable Food Systems Matter

What does it take to grow enough food for all of us? How do we create food systems that meet the needs of our changing world—and what role does technology play? A wide-ranging panel discussion explores global issues of food sustainability.