Creating a sustainable food future—simultaneously feeding a more populous world, fostering development and poverty reduction, and mitigating climate change and other environmental damage—presents a set of deeply intertwined challenges. Our report offers several insights that differ in direction or emphasis from much prior work.
Productivity gains are critical. Productivity gains in land, animals, and chemical inputs already in our baseline are responsible for closing two-thirds of the GHG mitigation gap and more than 80 percent of the land gap that would exist absent productivity gains after 2010. When adding in the various additional productivity gains required to meet our 4 Gt CO2e/year emissions target by 2050, the role of productivity gains grows even larger. Productivity gains also provide the most important potential synergy between income, food security, and environmental goals. Thus, new molecular crop-breeding methods will need to be exploited. Moreover, every hectare of global pasture that is capable of and appropriate for sustainable intensification must fully exploit its potential to increase milk or meat output severalfold.
Slowing demand growth is critical too. Despite the major contribution that productivity gains can make to closing our three gaps, they will not be enough. The largest diet-related opportunity lies in limiting the global growth in demand for beef, as well as sheep and goat meat. A 30 percent global shift from ruminant meat to other foods—achieved by the world’s highest consumers reducing their consumption by roughly 40 percent relative to 2010 levels—would, by itself, nearly close the land gap and halve the GHG mitigation gap. A 10 percent shift from all animal-based foods by the world’s wealthy would benefit human health and open up space for the great majority of poorer consumers to modestly increase their consumption. Moving more rapidly toward replacement-level fertility rates in sub-Saharan Africa would greatly reduce the risks of hunger in the region, provide multiple social and economic benefits, and reduce environmental challenges. Global plans to greatly increase the use of modern bioenergy derived from energy or food crops grown on land dedicated to that purpose, however, would make a sustainable food future unachievable.
Innovation in farm management will also be necessary to mitigate emissions. To implement management measures known to reduce emissions, governments need to develop systems to analyze mitigation potential and track progress across their agriculture sectors, increase incentives, and phase in mandatory performance standards. To stimulate promising management innovations, governments need to boost R&D, and encourage the private sector by requiring that farms use innovative technologies when those technologies demonstrate cost-effective mitigation.
Productivity gains must be linked to protection of carbon-rich ecosystems. Shifting of agricultural land both among and within regions presents a major carbon and biodiversity challenge. Governments therefore must make efforts to avoid such shifts and place more emphasis on reforesting abandoned agricultural land to natural forests when shifts do occur. Because productivity gains can sometimes encourage land-shifting, ensuring that yield gains protect forests and other carbon-rich and biodiverse ecosystems requires that governments and private parties explicitly link efforts to boost yields with protection for those ecosystems through financing, lending conditions, supply chain commitments, and public policies. The forest frontier should be closed to agriculture wherever feasible. New roads must also be located in ways that minimize the incentives to convert natural areas to agriculture.
Reforestation of some lands, and restoration of peatlands, should proceed immediately, but larger-scale reforestation depends on technological innovation and changes in consumption patterns. Marginal agricultural lands that cannot realistically be intensified are appropriate for reforestation right now. However, the scale of reforestation necessary to fully achieve climate goals requires that much more land be liberated from agriculture. Freeing up hundreds of millions of hectares of land can only be achieved through highly successful implementation of the measures proposed in our demand-reducing and productivity-boosting menu items.
Regulation and technological innovation will be essential to achieve the most ambitious levels of our menu items. Regulations must be crafted to spur innovation while allowing flexibility to develop cost-effective solutions. They should apply mostly to manufacturers of agricultural inputs and to managers of concentrated livestock facilities. Many categories of technological innovations are needed but promising options have emerged for menu items in all our courses. Governments will need to give far more weight to R&D and encourage the private sector with a range of policy instruments.
We believe that the challenge of sustainably feeding nearly 10 billion people by 2050 is greater than commonly appreciated. Growth in food demand is high due to population growth and the rapid rise of a global middle class. The strength of competition for land, particularly pastureland, has often been underestimated. Proposed land-use solutions often involve double counting, and the climate implications of land-shifting are not fully recognized. Sub-Saharan Africa presents unique and formidable challenges because of the region’s high population growth and low agricultural yields.
Despite the challenges, we believe that a sustainable food future is achievable. Our menu proposed in this synthesis report can create a world with sufficient, nutritious food for everyone. It also offers the chance to generate the broader social, environmental, and economic benefits that are the foundation of sustainable development. But such a future will only be achieved if governments, the private sector, and civil society act upon the entire menu quickly and with conviction.