Can the world feed 8bn people sustainably? | Global development

Can the world feed 8bn people sustainably? | Global development

More than enough food is produced to feed all of the 8 billion people currently

More than enough food is produced to feed all of the 8 billion people currently alive on the planet, yet after a decade of steady decline hunger is back on the rise, affecting 10% of the global population. According to the World Food Programme, ripple effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine have contributed to one of the worst food crises in decades, with acute food insecurity affecting 200 million more people globally than in 2019 due to rising costs of food, fuel and fertiliser.

But there are bigger problems on the horizon. As the global population passes 8 billion and is predicted to reach 10 billion by 2050, farmers, governments and scientists face the challenge of increasing food production without exacerbating environmental degradation and the climate crisis, which itself contributes to food insecurity in the global south.


Beyond 8 billion


As the world’s population passes another milestone, our series Beyond 8 billion examines the impact on some of the countries projected to have the greatest growth, as well as those facing the opposite problem: plunging birthrates and rapidly ageing populations.

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The United Nations projects that food production from plants and animals will need to increase 70% by 2050, compared with 2009, to meet increasing food demand. But food production is already responsible for nearly a third of carbon emissions as well as 90% of deforestation around the world.

“We use half of the world’s vegetative land for agriculture,” says Tim Searchinger, a researcher at Princeton University. “That’s enormously bad for the environment. We can’t solve the current problem by moving to more intensive agriculture because that requires more land.

Deforestation statistics

“We need to find a way to decrease our input [land] while increasing our food production.”

But there is no magic bullet to achieve this goal. Instead, an overhaul at every step of the food production chain, from the moment the seeds are planted in the soil to the point where the food reaches our dinner tables, will be necessary.

Can the world feed 8bn people sustainably? | Global development
For most of human history, agriculture consisted of sustenance farming – people cultivated crops and livestock to feed their households rather than to sell them for profit. Photograph: Antonio Masiello/Getty Images

Shifting towards regenerative agriculture

For most of human history, agriculture consisted of sustenance farming – people cultivated crops and livestock to feed their households rather than to sell them for profit. This began to shift after the Industrial Revolution and emergence of market capitalism, which also saw the rise of plantation farming made possible by colonisation of overseas land and slave labour.

Industrial farming not only increased the scale on which crops were cultivated but changed the techniques used by farmers. Instead of rotating the crops that were grown on a field each year, entire plantations would be dedicated to a single crop. This monocultural approach coupled with intensive modes of farming led to destruction of local biodiversity and land degradation – within years fields would cease to produce crops.

Plantations of the 18th and 19th centuries were a “get rich quick scheme” rather than a stable long-term investment, says Frank Uekötter, a professor of environmental humanities at the University of Birmingham. Plantation owners would extract maximum profits in a short period of time from their land. Once a field became unusable they would simply move on to new land. “Up to the end of the 19th century, wide swaths of our planet were still not claimed by global modernity,” says Uekötter.

But today, while we are quickly running out of vegetative land, this colonial-era mindset persists. “The current agricultural paradigm is that land is cheap and infinite,” says Crystal Davis from the World Resources Institute. “Most farmers just cut down more trees, when new land is needed.”

“But to meet our ecological goals, we need to halt the conversion of natural ecosystems into farmland,” Davis says. “We can achieve this in part by restoring degraded land back to its ecological integrity and productivity.”

Land restoration does not have to mean bringing it back to its original, pre-agricultural, state. “There’s a hybrid solution where we are bringing trees and other natural elements back to the landscape while also integrating production systems,” Davis says. “Systems that are integrated with trees and other plants often are more sustainable and more productive over the long term.”

Davis points to Initiative 20 x 20, which has seen 18 South American and Caribbean countries, including Argentina and Brazil, commit to restoring 50m hectares of land by 2030. The initiative includes a number of projects aimed at introducing agroforestry practices to cocoa and coffee farms in Colombia and Nicaragua, where farmers are encouraged to grow crops while introducing more trees to their land.

Fruit and vegetables on sale at Mexico City’s main wholesale market, the Central de Abastos.
Mexico City’s main wholesale market, the Central de Abastos. Freight transport contributes significantly to the carbon footprint of fruit and vegetables. Photograph: Rodrigo Arangua/AFP/Getty Images

Cutting food miles by growing crops locally

Transportation is a key, if often overlooked, part of the food production chain. Crops are transported from farms to processing plants before the food products arrive in shops. Packaging and transportation of food is responsible for 11% of all food industry greenhouse gas emissions. The emissions are not only caused by petrol used by trucks, which transport food across countries and continents, but also the refrigeration systems necessary to keep the produce fresh on its journey.

Graphic showing breakdown of greenhouse gas emissions from food production

Freight transport contributes significantly to the carbon footprint of fruit and vegetables, releasing almost twice as much greenhouse gases as the process of growing the crops. This means that to reduce the environmental impact of food production, a shift towards plant-based diets in wealthier countries has to be coupled with more locally grown produce.

“​​In the UK, roughly half the food comes from this country and half comes from other places around the world – that has a large carbon footprint,” says Madeleine Pullman, a professor of sustainability and innovation at the University of Sussex. A solution for countries like the UK, Pullman says, is to increase the diversity of food that is produced domestically by allocating subsidies to farmers to grow a wider range of fruits and vegetables.

But in lower-income countries with hot climates, transportation poses a different challenge, as refrigeration of produce during transit is costly, meaning that much of the food is spoiled or incubates bacteria before it reaches customers.

“It’s not always appropriate to move a western-style cooling system into a place in, for example, Africa,” Pullman says, pointing to Rwanda which introduced a national cooling strategy in 2018. Among other solutions, the plan includes subsidies for farmers to buy more efficient cooling equipment and trialling solar-powered cooling facilities.

“In Europe, we pay a lot of money to have food that has been moved and kept refrigerated, but when the vast majority are living in poverty, they cannot afford that,” Pullman says.

Abdulraheem Mukhtar Iderawumi, researcher at Oyo State College of Education in Nigeria, says that improving rural infrastructure such as roads and bridges would make transportation of harvested goods more efficient for smallholder farmers. He also suggests increasing farmers’ access to trucks specially designed for transporting food as well as sharing information on best practice. “Transportation should be done early in the morning or late in the evening,” he says. “That is the time period when humidity is less of a risk to produce.”

Zebu cattle in a farm in Paulinia, Brazil.
The production of animal-based products contributes to more than half of all carbon emissions from the food industry. Photograph: Paulo Whitaker/Reuters

Eating less meat

Shifting dietary habits is one of the most necessary solutions to the climate crisis, but it is also one of the most controversial and difficult to introduce. More than half of all carbon emissions from the food industry are due to production of meat and animal-based products. Beef production emits more than twice as much CO2 a kilo of food as other types of meat produce, and 20 to 200 times more than plant products such as cane sugar or citruses.

Currently, 77% of agricultural land worldwide is used for the production of animal-based products. This includes a third of all cropland, as grains and crops are grown to produce animal feed and biofuel rather than for human consumption.

“Any global problem that you have, food is implicated in it,” says Tara Garnett, a researcher at the University of Oxford. “On the one hand there are environmental problems associated with food, on the other there are health-related problems such as malnutrition, obesity and diabetes.”

Garnett worked on the EAT-Lancet Commission, which in 2019 published its report on Planetary Health Diet. “The idea was to figure out if there is a way of feeding everyone in a nourishing way on this planet, in ways that don’t cause environmental harm,” Garnett says.

The diet can be best described as “flexitarian”. Meat and dairy constitute important parts of the diet but in significantly smaller proportions than whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes. The diet recommends eating no more than 98 grams of red meat, 203 grams of poultry and 196 grams of fish a week.

“If you were to adhere to that diet, it would mean a massive reduction in meat, and to a lesser extent, dairy consumption in the global north, but it would actually give rise to more animal product consumption in many low-income countries,” Garnett says.

However, implementing lifestyle changes among a whole population is difficult.

“[The report] caused a lot of controversy, some saw it as a kind of a ‘vegan agenda’,” Garnett says. “There hasn’t been a country that has adopted the diet as its national dietary guideline.”

She adds: “Meat reduction is a very contested and value-laden idea that is perhaps kind of more personal than, for example, switching your boiler.” But she argues that changing dietary habits cannot be achieved by focusing on individuals. “All the drivers, all the incentives and the disincentives, are currently working against the ability of people to eat and behave differently,” she says. “Stop blaming the individual is one point I would make. There is a much greater role for government leadership and the food industry to play.”

Bamidele Raheem, a researcher at the University of Lapland, believes that dramatic changes in dietary habits might require generational change.

“Younger generations seem to be more curious about alternatives,” he says of his research on entomophagy, the technical term for eating insects.

Insects, which are commonly eaten in parts of Africa, Asia and South America, can be a more sustainable alternative to meat protein. “They are much easier to rear than cattle. They can be produced in a much smaller space at a much higher rate and can be fed on food waste,” Raheem says. “They are also richer in essential nutrients, such as iron, calcium and zinc.”

But westerners, who are the biggest consumers of red meat, face substantial mental barriers to enriching their diets with insects. “This is where the mindset comes in,” Raheem says. “The approach to promoting insect diets is to disguise them in such a way that you wouldn’t recognise a live insect. For example, powdered crickets can be mixed with bread flour to make baked goods.”

The European Union has recently approved house crickets, yellow mealworms and grasshopper to be sold in frozen, dried and powdered forms. Raheem thinks we could see baked goods made using the insect ingredients commonly sold in Europe within the next five years.

In 2019, only 9 million people across the EU were estimated to be consuming insect-based products, but the International Platform of Insects for Food and Feed forecasts this number could reach 390 million by 2030.

While meat consumption in the west seems to be slowing down, and self-reported consumption of meat in the UK fell by 17% between 2008 and 2018, researchers credit this with raising awareness of the ecological downsides of meat rather than specific initiatives.

Image taken from above of food waste collected by Bio Collectors, which provides a low-cost food waste collection from business premises before processing it into agricultural fertiliser.
Food waste collected in London for a project that processes it into agricultural fertiliser. According to a UN report, 931m tonnes of food is thrown away every year. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

Reducing food waste and loss

An estimated third of all produced food is never eaten, according to the UN, with 14% of food lost between harvest and retail, and another 17% thrown out by shops, restaurants and consumers.

Food “loss” rather than “waste” describes the food that never reaches consumers. This problem is more prevalent in low-income countries where farmers cannot afford secure storage facilities and refrigeration. “When there are no proper storage facilities the crops can be destroyed by the rain,” says Abhishek Chaudhary, a researcher at the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur.

In Kenya, for example, smallholder farmers who produce more than 90% of the country’s fruit and vegetables lose half of their harvest before they are able to sell it. “Better storage facilities will require a lot of technology transfer from richer countries to poorer ones and a holistic approach,” says Chaudhary.

An example of this could be a ColdHubs initiative in Nigeria, which allows farmers access to pay-as-you-go solar-powered cold rooms. The company currently operates 54 refrigeration units in 22 states across the country.

In the global north, however, the problem of food waste – that is, food which is never eaten after it is sold – is more prevalent than food loss. According to a UN report, 931m tonnes of food is thrown away every year, with most waste occurring in households.

Graphic showing that households wasted an estimated 569m tonnes of food globally in 2019.

“The consumers in rich countries need to be made aware of how much food they’re wasting,” says Chaudhary. “Big food companies also have responsibility. If they can design and label the product smartly, then the consumers who are buying it will waste less food. For example, they can make the package size smaller. If you have a packet of chips, for example, but people don’t usually eat all of it, then smaller packet is better.”

Digital data collection can also be used by shops, supermarkets and restaurants. “By using smart data, retailers can see which things consumers are buying and adjust their inventory,” says Chaudhary. “Individual households can also keep a food diary to see which products they end up throwing away.”