(CN) – Despite grim news about climate change, a new study indicates certain shifts in what food we consume and how we handle food waste could make feeding the world sustainable in the coming decades.
A global shift toward plant-based diets and efforts to cut food waste in half could be key to feeding the estimated 10 billion people by 2050 in a sustainable way, the study concluded.
The researchers looked at how food affects “planetary boundaries,” a fairly new concept developed as a way to analyze environmental health.
The scientists who developed the concept describe a planetary boundary as a “safe operating space for humanity,” using factors like climate change, ozone depletion and genetic diversity.
Each boundary has a “tipping point” in which a certain variable, such as carbon emissions, could cause catastrophic effects.
Humans could avoid those tipping points if there is a global shift in food production and consumption, according to the study published today in the journal Nature.
“No single solution is enough to avoid crossing planetary boundaries. But when the solutions are implemented together, our research indicates that it may be possible to feed the growing population sustainably,” said Marco Springmann of the University of Oxford, who led the study.
“Without concerted action, we found that the environmental impacts of the food system could increase by 50-90 percent by 2050 as a result of population growth and the rise of diets high in fats, sugars and meat. In that case, all planetary boundaries related to food production would be surpassed, some of them by more than twofold.”
The study is not the first to link meat consumption to climate change, but it quantifies how it affects the planetary boundaries.
The researchers found that a worldwide shift to plant-based diets could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by half, and curb the use of cropland and fresh water, as well as fertilizer use.
Effects could also be mitigated with wide-scale changes in agricultural technology and management, the researchers found. Among other things, they suggested improved water management and fertilizer recycling.
And if humans can cut food loss and waste by half, environmental impacts could be reduced by 16 percent, the study found.
The study was funded by the nonprofit EAT, which looks at transformations of food systems, and the charity Wellcome’s “Our Planet, Our Health” research program at the Oxford Martin School.