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Introduction

Sustainable Farming

Written by on January 1, 2021

This is not so much a New Year’s resolution as it is a timing co-incidence.

A few months ago, I stumbled across an article 10 ways to eat better - for us and the planet published by the World Economic Forum. It was an interesting read, but I didn’t think much of it afterwards. A little while later, I found another article 10 Tips for Eating for the Planet published by the WWF. And then little by little, I started seeing more and more about the future of food and the planet.

Over the last several months I’ve been thinking to myself, what will we be eating when we welcome the 10-billionth person to planet Earth? Our best estimates so far is that by the year 2050, we can expect to see a global population of 10-billion people. So I’ve decided to find out what the year 2050 might look like today. I’m going to change my diet, and find out first hand what the 10-billion people of the future might put on their dinner plates. Along the way, I’m going to try to answer these questions that I’ve been pondering.

What will a world of 10-billion people look like?

No-one can predict the future with any amount of certainty. What we do know, is that our current food systems have too little capacity to accomodate 10-billion people without change.

Simulations show that we can expect increased urbanisation in 2050, with a continued shift of populations from rural areas into cities. Around the world we can expect to see mega-cities of more than 10-million people become more commonplace. On top of that we can expect to see limited agricultural land expansion [2].

How do we feed 10-billion people?

The short answer is, with great change.

In the year 2050, we can expect a global population of between 8.5-billion and 10-billion people. As you could imagine, adding an extra 3-billion people to the world is going to create a large demand for food.

We can expect huge investments in food production, food security, and the food system as a whole. We’ll need the governments of the world as well as businesses and individuals to co-operate with one another like never before to make sure the world of 2050 is fed [1].

What will change, and what will remain the same?

We have already seen a production plateau in many staple foods such as rice and wheat where technology has failed to keep increasing yields. If we can’t increase yields then it makes sense to just plant more crops in more land. There is of course a limit to how much land is suitable for farming even before raising the question of whether that land should be farmed [3].

On the demand side of the equation it’s important that we look at what and how we’re eating. We are already told that we should eat more fruit and vegetables for our own health, but what if we were to double our consumption? And how about reducing our intake of red meat and poultry? For some people in the world this is a drastic change, for others it’s already their way of life. The mediterranean diet is already popular beyond the mediterranean sea, and if we get ahead of the growing global middle classes’ desire for meat, then we can also get ahead of the production issues [4] [5].

On both sides of the supply and demand equation, technology will play a part in safety, health, nutrition, processing, distribution, and consumption of food [6]. Already we are talking of growing food in different environments; hydroponic lettuce grown in towers, and hamburger patties grown in petrie dishes [7].

How are 700 million people undernourished while 2 billion people are overweight?

There is a stark contrast in the world that so many people can go hungry whilst at the same time so many can be obese. The creation of healthier diets to ensure that those who need more nutrients get them, and those who need fewer or better nutrients aren’t leaving anything to waste. It is likely the case that by changing our diets for better health, that we also improve the sustainability of our food systems too [8].

Changing to a more healthy diet containing more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, with a reduction in portion sizes helps people all over the world prevent tertiary diseases like obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, and cancer [9].

Research also shows that by increasing the amount of whole foods we eat, can also help us to eat smaller portions. When ingredients are pulled apart like refined sugars, and combined with other ingredients like refined flour, our bodies have trouble recognising what we are eating and fails to signal that we are overeating, so we keep on eating [10].

More than one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions come from food systems

And most of that comes from ruminant livestock, or to put it bluntly, each year about 3 gigatons of gas comes from the burps, farts, and rotting manure of cattle. Reducing emissions from cows is suggested as one of the quickest ways to slow climate change [11].

But of course, it is easier said than done when there are billions of vested interests in doing things the way that we do. To make change on the scale we need to feed 10-billion people, we need to see incentives pass through the entire food system to address behavioural changes, mitigate the costs of transition to new systems, and to bridge the gap in economic costs. But first we must fill knowledge gaps and awareness gaps throughout government, business, and society [12].

What makes a sustainable food system?

When it comes to building a sustainable food system, we must think beyond only food. A sustainable food system in 2050 should use no or little additional land, it will safeguard current biodiversity, reduce water usage, and reduce pollution - particularly from nitrogen and phosphorous [13].

When it comes to all of the above, farmers are our friends. In 2020, farmers are already expected to produce more food, with less money, and all on the same amount of land [14]. There is already a rising awareness of the need to look at the many methods of producing food, and promote the methods that provide the greatest good to producing nutritious food local to the consumer [15].

The Future of Regenerative Farming?

Regenerative farming is based on these four principles [16]:

  1. Eliminate tillage,
  2. Replace bare soil,
  3. Encourage plant diversity, and
  4. Integrate plants and animals on farms.

By focusing on soil health and promoting biodiversity, regenerative farming produces healthy food profitably.

Regenerative food systems are one of the most effective approaches we have for battling planetary-scale problems.

What can I do as an individual?

Everything that sits on my plate was once in a paddock. With a few adjustments to my own meal planning I can eat more plants, a wider variety of plants, and create less waste. As a single person, that may not mean much; but when you think of those small changes multiplied by the more than 7-billion people on Earth, we can really change the demand on our food systems [5].

Join me and find out what to expect from the world of 2050.

Endnotes

[1] FISCHER, G., 2018. Transforming the global food system. Nature, 562(7728), pp. 1-2.

[2] MORA, O., CHANTAL LE MOUËL, MARIE DE LATTRE-GASQUET, DONNARS, C., DUMAS, P., RÉCHAUCHÈRE, O., BRUNELLE, T., MANCERON, S., MARAJO-PETITZON, E., MOREAU, C., BARZMAN, M., FORSLUND, A. and MARTY, P., 2020. Exploring the future of land use and food security: A new set of global scenarios. PLoS One, 15(7).

[3] Feeding the ten billion; Agricultural technology. 2016. The Economist, 419(8993), pp. 17.

[4] Less meat, more veg: a diet to save the planet. 2019. The Week, (1211), pp. 21.

[5] Willett, W., Rockström, J., Loken, B., Springmann, M., Lang, T., Vermeulen, S., . . . Murray, C. J. L. (2019). Food in the anthropocene: The EAT– lancet commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. The Lancet, 393(10170), 447-492.

[6] COLE, M.B., AUGUSTIN, M.A., ROBERTSON, M.J. and MANNERS, J.M., 2018. The science of food security. NPJ Science of Food, 2(1).

[7] SEMUELS, A., 2020. FEEDING A CHANGING WORLD. Time, 195(3), pp. 66.

[8] HENNIG, B., 2020. The Global Burden of Malnutrition. Geographical, 92(2), pp. 10.

[9] Prevention always better than cure: A move towards disease free and healthy life. 2020. BioSpectrum.

[10] SHELL, E.R., 2019. Obesity on the Brain. Scientific American, 321(4), pp. 38.

[11] WALRATH, R., 2019. GREEN MOO DEAL. Mother Jones, 44(6), pp. 72.

[12] BORA, S. and PRABHALA, P., 2020. How to incentivize food systems to meet the realities of the 21st century. McKinsey Insights.

[13] LOWE, I., 2019. Sustainable Food Production on the Menu. Australasian Science, 40(2), pp. 47

[14] KATAINEN, E., 2020. Steps to sustainable farming. The Parliament Magazine.

[15] We urgently need a fresh, positive and practical vision for the countryside. Country Life, pp. 50-53, 2019.

[16] LUNDGREN, J., 2020. Boost Biodiversity with Regenerative Agriculture. Mother Earth News, (301), pp. 40-44.