Feeding 10 Billion People by 2050 Will Mean Eating a Lot Less Meat

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Unless we make some big changes, the planet will not be able to support our skyrocketing population.

So here's the deal: We have a finite amount of space on this planet, and a species whose population growth remains unchecked. What could possibly go wrong?

Global population of (the ironically named) homo sapiens is expected to reach 10 billion by 2050. Being animals who instinctively want to continue their species through procreation, like most animals do, it seems unlikely that population growth will slow down by means of strategy. Which means eventually we will not be able to feed everyone if we continue with our current food systems.

Unless we make some changes, the environmental impacts of the food system could increase by 50 to 90 percent in the next 20 years, say researchers, noting that "In the absence of technological changes and dedicated mitigation measures, reaching levels that are beyond the planetary boundaries that define a safe operating space for humanity."

If we're not going to stop growing in terms of numbers, we have to get smart about how we're going to feed all these mouths.

The paper, "Options for keeping the food system within environmental limits," was published in the journal Nature, and concludes that feeding 10 billion people by 2050 within planetary limits may be achievable.

According to the Stockholm Resilience Centre, the study is the first to quantify how food production and consumption affects the planetary boundaries. "A global shift towards healthy and more plant-based diets, halving food loss and waste, and improving farming practices and technologies are required to feed 10 billion people sustainably by 2050," notes the Centre.

There is no single solution for feeding the expected masses, rather, several issues need to be addressed. Importantly, our lust for meat will have to tamed. The Centre writes:

"Climate change cannot be sufficiently mitigated without dietary changes towards more plant-based diets. Adopting more plant-based “flexitarian” diets globally could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than half, and also reduce other environmental impacts, such as fertilizer application and the use of cropland and freshwater, by a tenth to a quarter."

We will also have to improve our agriculture practices and technologies to limit pressures on agricultural land, freshwater extraction, and fertilizer use. "Increasing agricultural yields from existing cropland, balancing application and recycling of fertilizers, and improving water management, could, along with other measures, reduce those impacts by around half," conclude the authors.

Additionally, the terrible problem of food waste will have to be fixed. We need to reduce food waste by half – to do so would reduce environmental impacts by up to 16 percent.

Lead author Marco Springmann, from the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food and the Nuffield Department of Population Health at the University of Oxford, says "Many of the solutions we analysed are being implemented in some parts of the world, but it will need strong global co-ordination and rapid upscale to make their effects felt."

“When it comes to diets, comprehensive policy and business approaches are essential to make dietary changes towards healthy and more plant-based diets possible and attractive for a large number of people. Important aspects include school and workplace programmes, economic incentives and labelling, and aligning national dietary guidelines with the current scientific evidence on healthy eating and the environmental impacts of our diet,” adds Springmann.

In the meantime, we can all do out part by reducing our meat consumption and paying attention to food waste on a personal level. We have to start somewhere. For more, see related stories below.