The ways humanity produces and consumes food cause up to 30 percent of planet-warming emissions, generate widespread malnutrition, and perpetuate poverty and inequality—but a new report released Monday claims that 10 global transformations over the next decade could help the international community tackle the climate crisis and feed over nine billion people.
"This is the closest to a win-win we will get, reaping huge social, economic, and environmental benefits."
—Jeremy Oppenheim, FOLU principal
The report, Growing Better: 10 Critical Transitions to Transform Food and Land Use (pdf), comes from the Food and Land Use Coalition (FOLU), which launched in 2017 to bring together organizations representing key actors—from business and civil society leaders to scientists and policymakers—to transform global food and land use systems.
"The term 'food and land use systems' covers every factor in the ways land is used and food is produced, stored, packed, processed, traded, distributed, marketed, consumed, and disposed of," the report explains. "It embraces the social, political, economic, and environmental systems that influence and are influenced by those activities."
New @FOLUCoalition report highlights the benefits of transforming global #food and #land use systems and the costs of inaction, revealing benefits that far outweigh the costs & proposes actionable solutions, many already in existence: https://t.co/JyFCG5GrNW #InAllOurHands pic.twitter.com/sHeLbpYsG1
— Food and Land Use Coalition (@FOLUCoalition) September 16, 2019
Transforming these systems "can help bring climate change under control, safeguard biological diversity, ensure healthier diets for all, drastically improve food security, and create more inclusive rural economies. And they can do that while reaping a societal return that is more than 15 times the related investment cost (estimated at less than 0.5 percent of global GDP) and creating new business opportunities worth up to $4.5 trillion a year by 2030," says Growing Better. "Delivering such a transformation will be challenging but will ensure that food and land use systems play their part in delivering the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris agreement targets."
The report estimates such a transformation would also save $5.7 trillion per year in damage to people and the planet by 2030. As Jeremy Oppenheim—FOLU principal and the report's co-lead author—put it, "This is the closest to a win-win we will get, reaping huge social, economic, and environmental benefits."
"This report proves for the first time that it is possible, indeed economically attractive, to feed nine billion people with nutritious diets within planetary boundaries and to do so in a way that is good for rural communities," Oppenheim said in a statement.
"The only question is whether we have the political will and business leadership to take on this agenda," he added. "We can either seize the opportunity to transform our food and land use systems or frankly, sleepwalk our way into an ecological and human disaster."
Based on current trends, the report warns, the alternative to rapidly reforming food and land use systems is saddling humanity with "a scenario wherein climate change, sea level rise, and extreme weather events increasingly threaten human life, biodiversity and natural resources are depleted, people increasingly suffer life-threatening, diet-induced diseases, food security is compromised, and socioeconomic development is seriously impaired."
The 10 transitions proposed in Growing Better are healthy diets, productive and regenerative agriculture, protecting and restoring nature, a healthy and productive ocean, diversifying protein supply, reducing food loss and waste, local loops and linkages, digital revolution, stronger rural livelihoods, and gender and demography. They are presented in the form of a pyramid, sorted across four themes: nutritious food, nature-based solutions, wider choice and supply, and opportunity for all. The report details essential actions for implementing each transition as well as projected financial costs and benefits by 2030.
Healthy diets is at the top of the pyramid. "Global diets need to converge towards local variations of the 'human and planetary health diet'—a predominantly plant-based diet which includes more protective foods (fruits, vegetables, and whole grains), a diverse protein supply, and reduced consumption of sugar, salt, and highly processed foods," Growing Better says, referencing an EAT-Lancet Commission report from January.
Growing Better also builds on recent reports from bodies of the United Nations. In May, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) found that human activity has pushed a million plant and animal species to the brink of extinction and warned that "we are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health, and quality of life worldwide."
The U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a special report in August warning that, as the Natural Resources Defense Council's Susan Casey-Lefkowitz summarized, "the world must take immediate action to transform the way we use our land—forestry, agriculture, industrial, and urban development—in order to avoid a climate catastrophe."
The good news, according to FOLU report lead author Per Pharo, is that "there is no system level trade-off between food production and environmental protection. Even with a growing global population we show that there is enough land to provide nutritious diets for all while at the same time protecting and restoring nature and slashing greenhouse gas emissions and delivering better, more inclusive development."
"We can do this by halting and then reversing the destruction of forests and other natural ecosystems, protecting biodiversity, and improving freshwater and ocean health and productivity," Pharo said. "We have found that these strong health and development gains can be achieved without further encroachment on nature, and in fact sparing 1.5 billion hectares of land which would otherwise have been used for agriculture."
Achieving these gains for humanity and the natural world, however, requires a global shift in priorities—as illustrated by Damian Carrington reporting on FOLU's recommendations for The Guardian, which highlighted that "the public is providing more than $1 million per minute in global farm subsidies, much of which is driving the climate crisis and destruction of wildlife."
"There is incredibly small direct targeting of [subsidies at] positive environment outcomes, which is insane," FOLU's Oppenheim told Carrington. "We have got to switch these subsidies into explicitly positive measures."