Food News: Study Details How We Can Feed Earth's 10 Billion People in 2050

But you'll have to eat your vegetables.

The planet isn’t just getting hotter, it’s also getting way more crowded. If the United Nations’ estimates play out, there’ll soon by roughly 10 billion people who call the planet earth home. That’s a lot of mouths to feed.

Fortunately, with a few tweaks, feeding 10 billion people is surprisingly doable, Marco Springmann, a Ph.D. of the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food and the Nuffield Department of Population Health at the University of Oxford, tells Inverse. We not only produce more than enough food to feed the current population, but also enough to feed 10 billion people, according to a 2012 article in Journal of Sustainable Agriculture. The problem is that we aren’t doing so well when it comes to putting quality over quantity, both in terms of distributing food to those who need it and producing it sustainably. The hungry and the environment are paying for humankind’s bad habits.

The world population is projected to reach about 10 billion by 2050.

Max Roser and Esteban Ortiz-Ospina

Springman is a co-author of a study, published October 10 in Nature by the Stockholm Resilience Center and funded by EAT, which breaks down the numbers of how humankind can feed its 10 billion mouths while maintaining the Earth as well. It’s the first paper to quantify the effects of food production and consumption on the Earth’s systems. By shifting to plant-based diets, decreasing food waste, and improving farming methods, researchers say all 10 billion of us can live sustainably.

“Without concerted action, we found that the environmental impacts of the food system could increase by 50-90% by 2050 as a result of population growth and the rise of diets high in fats, sugars and meat,” Springmann explains in a press release. “All planetary boundaries related to food production would be surpassed, some of them by more than twofold.”

How to Feed 10 Billion People

One thing that makes addressing the problem of food shortages easier (or at least more approachable) than other environmental problems is that everyone is able to contribute in some way.

“When you think about the whole way we produce and consume food, everyone can contribute in some way” Springmann tells Inverse.

On a high level, researchers identified a few major areas humanity can level-up. First of all, shifting to a plant-based diet could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than half, according to the study. And food production accounts for a full 17 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, according to a separate Harvard study.

Decreasing food waste also holds high potential to lighten humanity’s environmental footprint. Every time food gets thrown away, the resources spent to create it — water, fertilizer, etc — are wasted too. But if food and waste loss is even halved, our impacts could shrink by 16 percent.

Finally, opportunities to improve abound in the agricultural industry, both in technology and management methods. This includes strategies like Netherland’s precise system to monitor fertilizer use or Israel’s system of desalinization plants and storage tank for water management. By the study’s calculations, optimizing the systems of global agriculture could cut our current agricultural impacts in half.

For the density of the country's population, the Netherlands still ranks as the world's second-largest agriculture exporter, thanks to their high-tech greenhouses.

Hndrk, Flickr

Achieving Global Cooperation

Environmental role models exist in pockets around the globe, but obviously a coordinated effort proves much more difficult.

“Lots of really young folk in big cities are spearheading more plant-based diets,” Springmann points out.

The concern is how to make measures like these accessible to all income levels. Even then, Springmann is acutely aware that plant-based diets manifest differently across geography and culture — there is no singular perfect plant-based diet for the globe to follow. Taking a more granular look at smaller regions is a challenge for future research, since codifying food principles into flexible policy is no simple task.

But Springmann remains optimistic. Even there are so many moving pieces to the puzzle of building a sustainable food system for 10 billion people, it also means there are myriad ways for citizens to get involved, whether it’s calling a local politician or understanding food date labels.

“When you think about the whole way we produce and consume food, everyone can contribute in some way.”

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