There's not enough fresh produce for everyone in the world to eat well

zucchini in a field
CC BY 2.0 US Dept. of Agriculture -- A basket of freshly picked zucchini in a field

Scientists say we're growing too many bad foods and too few good ones.

If everyone in the world were to eat the recommended amount of vegetables, fruit, and protein, there wouldn't be enough to go around. This finding comes from a new study at the University of Guelph, Canada, that delves into the question of how we're going to feed a burgeoning global population while providing proper nutrition.

Researchers found that current global agricultural production does not align with nutritional experts' recommendations. The researchers calculated the number of servings per person on the planet that are produced right now: 12 servings of grains, 5 of fruits and vegetables, 3 of oil and fat, 3 of protein, 1 of milk and 4 servings of sugar.

They contrasted that with the dietary recommendations outlined by the Harvard Healthy Eating Plate (HHEP), which recommends that 50 percent of one's diet consist of fruit and vegetables, 25 percent whole grains, and 25 percent protein. If global agriculture were to align its production with this model, it would need to provide 8 servings of whole grains, 15 servings of fruits and vegetables, 1 serving of oil, 5 servings of protein, 1 serving of milk, and zero sugar per person per day.

Such a switch would cause upheaval in the agricultural industry, since many developed nations have subsidized corn and grain production for years and poured money into researching these crops, far more so than fruits and vegetables; but as study co-author Evan Fraser said, "What we are producing at a global level is not what we should be producing according to nutritionists." The surplus of these less-than-healthy crops is presumably contributing to the current epidemic of obesity and diabetes.

Next, the study examined what the land use implications would be for altering the global diet to fit the HHEP model. While the land required to produce grains, sugar, fat, and oil would decrease, the amount needed for vegetable and fruit would have to increase by 171 million hectares. Ultimately this would result in "50 million fewer hectares of arable land, because fruits and vegetables take less land to grow than grain, sugar and fat."

Pastureland, however, is a big problem. Right now 3,433 million ha are used to graze livestock and increasing meat consumption to HHEP levels would require an additional 458 million ha. This is not sustainable and reveals the importance of finding alternative protein sources as population grows. The study authors do not think global vegetarianism makes sense:

"In parts of the world where malnutrition is still prevalent, increased consumption of livestock products can help improve the well-being of the rural poor. In addition, animal agriculture and animal-based diets are culturally important for people around the world. Hence, meat consumption will continue, but cannot persist at today’s levels without major consequences."

A best-case scenario would see a reduction in meat consumption to around 20 percent of one's protein intake, similar to how many people in India eat. In this scenario global agriculture would need only 53 million ha more arable land and 209 million ha more pastureland.

The scientists see three pathways going forward, all of which can be implemented in conjunction with each other. First, there has to be a shift to proteins that use less land and produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions. Second, science and technology must be used to increase crop yields. This can be driven through innovation in urban farming, vertical farming, hydroponics, etc. Third, food waste must be slashed, and individual household efforts do add up. The authors conclude,

"Feeding the next generation is one of the most pressing challenges facing the 21st century. For a growing population, our calculations suggest that the only way to eat a nutritionally balanced diet, save land and reduce greenhouse gas emission is to consume and produce more fruits and vegetables as well as transition to diets higher in plant-based protein."

Read the whole study here.

There's not enough fresh produce for everyone in the world to eat well
Scientists say we're growing too many bad foods and too few good ones.

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