The current agricultural system helped prevent famines and feed the planet's 7 billion people, but the way we eat and produce food poses a threat to food security in the future.
Faced with the prospect of the world's population reaching 10 billion people by 2050, ensuring food security is more important than ever.
But current food production is among the main culprits for environmental degradation in the world.
By following current patterns of production and consumption, we will soon exceed our planetary limits with climate change and the use of the land necessary to survive and prosper.
"It was quite dramatic to see how far the planetary limits will be exceeded if we do nothing," observed Marco Springmann, one of the authors of a report that analyzes the impact of the food system on the environment.
“The food system puts pressure on land management, and in particular on deforestation. If many forests are cut down, basically the ecosystem regulation system is ruined because forests store carbon dioxide, but they are also the habitat of wild species and reservoirs of biodiversity ”, he added.
More than 40 percent of the world's land has been converted or set aside for agriculture, leading to the loss of more than half of the planet's forests.
The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) pointed out that commercial agriculture is one of the main responsible, and especially livestock production, soybean and palm oil.
This is seen in the Amazon, where trees were cut down to make way for raising livestock and growing soybeans, most of which is used to make fodder rather than for human consumption.
In fact, half of the planet's arable land is used for raising animals and growing their food; an area equal to the area of North America and South America together.
The intensive use of fertilizers also decreased soil productivity, leading to land degradation and even desertification.
Furthermore, these activities contribute to releasing significant amounts of greenhouse gases.
According to the study "Options to keep the food system within environmental limits", published in the journal Nature, the food system emitted more than 5 billion tons of carbon dioxide in 2010 alone.
The study also estimates that the environmental effects of the food system could increase between 50 and 90 percent if selective measures are not taken, beyond the "safe operating space for humanity."
Springmann detailed three ambitious measures that are necessary to stay within environmental limits, including technological improvements that can increase sustainable food production and thus decrease the demand for more arable land.
Another even more overwhelming measure is switching to a plant-based diet.
That change “will be even better for greenhouse gas emissions, and it will also be (a diet) more balanced and better for health; According to estimates, we would reduce the pressure on the ground if we change our diet, ”he told IPS.
The Nature article concluded that a diet shift toward healthier alternatives could help reduce pollutant emissions and other environmental impacts by nearly 30 percent.
A new study from the EAT-Lancet Commission also underscored the need for dietary changes to achieve environmental sustainability and improve public health.
"The food we eat and how we produce it determines the health of people and the planet, and we are doing very poorly right now," observed one of the authors, Tim Lang.
"We need a significant overhaul, to change the world food system on a scale never seen before in such a way that it is appropriate to the circumstances of each country," he said.
“It is an unexplored political territory and these are problems that are not easily solved, but that objective is within reach; The scientific goals we set for a healthy and sustainable diet are an important foundation, which will underpin and drive change, ”Lang added.
The diet recommended by the EAT-Lancet Commission requires reducing the consumption of red meat by half and doubling that of vegetables, fruits and nuts.
North America is one of the places where red meat is consumed the most. In 2018, in the United States, consumption reached an all-time high of more than 100 kilograms of red meat and chicken.
If you followed the aforementioned health guidelines, North America should cut its consumption of red meat by 84 percent and eat six times as many beans and lentils.
Green diets have become popular in the region, but judging by the success of companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger, Springmann said that information alone will not be enough to promote a change in diet.
“Of course, everyone could change their diet and it would be great if they could. But if they do not facilitate the change to the average consumer, many will not do it, ”he stressed.
Springman suggested changing the price of food products to include the consequences they have on health and the environment.
Meat, for example, would have to cost 40 percent more, on average, to release polluting emissions.
That generates funds for governments to invest in other areas such as subsidizing healthier products.
In addition to dietary change, the EAT-Lancet Commission noted that zero loss of biodiversity, zero net expansion of arable land over natural ecosystems, and improvements in fertilizer and water use are needed.
“The transformation promoted by the commission is neither superficial nor simple, and requires a focus on complex systems, incentives and regulations that require communities and governments to play a role at multiple levels in redefining how we eat,” observed Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet.
"The answer lies in our connection with nature, and if we can eat in a way that serves both our planet and our bodies, the natural balance of the planet's resources will be restored," he said.
"Nature itself, which is disappearing, holds the key to the survival of humans and the planet," he added.
By Tharanga Yakupitiyage
Translation: Veronica Firm