23 leading scientists have analyzed the future of food in depth. If we are to stay within planetary boundaries it will shake up the whole food sector dramatically and endanger large parts of it. The Sustainian assesses the consequences of the new study from the University of Oxford.

Options for keeping the food system within environmental limits.

That is the name of what is to date the most comprehensive study of the role of global food systems in fighting climate change. It is written by 23 leading scientists and published in the journal ‘Nature’. The study conveys some very shocking information. Using comprehensive data from all countries, it seems to carve out the rule that the more precise an analysis of global sustainability issues is, the more dramatic a picture it paints.

If we follow the study’s projected scenario for 2050, the whole food sector will increase its environmental impact by 50-92% – in the absence of drastic technological changes and dedicated mitigation measures. On a planet where planetary boundaries are already exceeded – in part due to current food systems – adding additional stress is a dangerous trajectory.

To alleviate this gloomy scenario, three suggested measures must be implemented, and the full implications of these will without a doubt be highly consequential for food producers. First, the study calls for a dramatic reduction in food loss and waste. By 2050 there is a need to reduce the projected food loss and waste by at least 50%, preferably 75% to avoid uncontrollable harm to the planet’s ability to regenerate. Second, the study finds that new technological innovation must be implemented to increase the efficiency of food production. Third, the study concludes that meat must become a very rare phenomenon on most people’s dinner plates towards 2050 to safeguard our future. It argues that the projected intake of meat must be reduced by up to 90% in large parts of the world.

The need for ditching meat: Consumer’s choices matters  

Feeding a growing world population has been an urgent topic for decades. For years, the global food system has been criticized for its inefficiency and distributional deadlocks, where roughly one third of produced food never reaches the table. This lead to the perception that we could be able to feed everyone within planetary boundaries by restructuring the food system.

Two consequences can be derived from this statement: First, much more is left to consumers to make food systems more sustainable by demanding less meat, second, and as a result, this will affect meat producers as less meat will have to be eaten in the future.

But the implications of this study present a new reality where we cannot reach a just and sustainable food scenario through restructuring – we must ensure drastic reductions in individual consumers’ meat intake. Because with regards to greenhouse gases (GHG) within the food sector, the only possible mean to lower the needed emissions is to switch to a plant-based diet. As the study states: “[…] dietary change contributes the most to the reductions in GHG emissions, and the technological and management-related changes contribute the most to reductions in the other environmental impacts, while reductions in food loss and waste contribute up to a third to the overall reductions […]”.

Two consequences can be derived from this statement: First, much more is left to consumers to make food systems more sustainable by demanding less meat, second, and as a result, this will affect meat producers as less meat will have to be eaten in the future.

There is simply a need for a mindset shift, towards eating less, but better, meat. And the new markets for meat might be directed towards high quality, organic, antibiotic free meat, if it is not down-right substituted with meat-alternatives.

The good news

In a world awash with sombre headlines, the good news that the study conveys is that it is possible for global food systems to stay within planetary boundaries while feeding the whole world. But it will entail – besides the meat issue – a historical ramping up of collaboration between governments, companies and consumers. It is this very combination of measures that will do the trick the study claims, and this could lead to synergistic effects in short time. It requires mindset shifts along the whole value chain, from farm to fork, using everything from ‘nose to tail’ of produced goods.

Companies can do their part in fighting food waste, consumers must shift to a more plant-based diet, and governments should create the right regulatory framework in close collaboration with stakeholders. Some measures are already being implemented around the world, such as the Champions 12.3., a global multi-stakeholder coalition successfully fighting food waste. And many solutions are already available, scalable and financially viable.

Regulations are coming

Some have criticized the study’s conclusions for assuming that there will be no technological and innovative progress and breakthroughs. But the magnitude of even the least ambitious scenarios that the study outlines, still entails an imperative for the global food systems to align with a whole new reality in short time. Otherwise, regulation may hit hard in the near future.

Less than a week ago the EU voted for a complete ban on a range of single-use plastics across the union in a bid to stop pollution of the oceans. The bill is expected to go through, and is just an example of a rather drastic law that will impact and reverberate throughout the whole value chain of food production and distribution. And more will definitely come.

As an potential “endangered” industry, the food sector can expect profound changes in the nearby future. The lesson to be learned is a need for greater sensitivity to larger social, economic and cultural trends, and to make sure to follow the public’s sentiment closely which can be the subject of wild fluctuations as documented in another article in this issue.