Feed the world, make it a better place, but no meat and dairy
Current crop production is sufficient to feed Earth's masses – but only with radical dietary shifts, according to scientists
The planet already produces enough food for the 9.7 billion people expected to populate it in 2050 – as long as they stop eating meat and dairy products.
Researchers in the UK say humans also need to eat more crops fed mainly to animals, such as maize.
“Our analysis finds no nutritional case for feeding human-edible crops to animals, which reduces calorie and protein supplies,” said Professor Nick Hewitt, of the Lancaster Environment Centre.
“If society continues on a ‘business-as-usual’ dietary trajectory, a 119% increase in edible crops grown will be required by 2050.”According to the World Population Clock , the planet supports just over 7.6 million humans today, with SA’s 57.73 million representing 0.8% of the total.
But already 795 million people do not have enough food to lead a healthy, active life, according to the Food Aid Foundation, and one-third of food goes to waste.
Hewitt’s team analysed global and regional food supplies to reveal the flows of calories, protein and micro-nutrients from production through to human consumption, in a study published in the journal Elementa, Science of the Anthropocene.
Combining data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation with food nutrient data, information on animal grazing and human food requirements, they set out to see whether the planet could feed a growing population with the food already produced.
They concluded that, even without improvements in crop yield, current crop production was sufficient – but only with radical dietary shifts, including replacing most meat and dairy with plant-based alternatives, and a greater willingness to eat crops currently fed to animals.Hewitt acknowledged that meat and dairy, particularly those produced from grass, pasture and cereal crop residues, may be important to people without access to a diverse choice of foods.
“However, overall industrialised meat and dairy production, which currently relies on feeding 34% of human-edible crop calories to animals globally, is highly inefficient in terms of the provision of human nutrition.”
Reducing waste and excess consumption was also important, though less significant, and there was a need for profound changes to the socio-economic conditions of many people to ensure that everyone had access to a healthy, balanced diet.“As well as following the flow of all human-edible and non-human-edible food calories, we track protein, vitamin A, iron and zinc, because shortages of these have been identified as the major causes of ‘hidden hunger’,” said Hewitt.
His colleague, Mike Berners-Lee, said there was little space for biofuels in the Lancaster model. “Currently, 16% of crops available for eating are diverted to non-food uses, mainly biofuel. Increasing market pressures for biofuels could further stress the global food system,” he said.
The research does not take account of crop yield changes that may result from new technologies, land use or demographic changes, farming practices or climate change, but keeps yields at 2013 levels.
“There is currently widespread emphasis on increasing crop yields and reducing waste as the main mechanisms for ensuring global food security,” said Berners-Lee.
But the potential nutritional benefits of increased crop yields would be lost if additional production was diverted to biofuels and largely lost if diverted to animals.
“Achieving global food security while reducing negative environmental impacts is one of the greatest challenges facing humanity.”