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Dietary changes will help more sustainable agriculture meet increased global food demand

Global food production has considerably modified natural environments, causing effects ranging from the depletion of rivers and groundwater and nutrient pollution, to habitat loss and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The combined pressures of globalisation, population growth, urbanisation and climate change mean that developing sustainable agriculture in the future will be a major challenge. A growing and wealthier global population is likely to increase this impact and so solutions are required to increase food production whilst also minimising environmental impacts (sustainable intensification).

This study analysed to what extent agricultural productivity will need to increase in order to maintain current levels of resource use and global emissions from food production. The researchers measured ‘footprint intensity’ (a ratio of inputs to product output, indicating the amount of food produced per unit of resource used), using the potential environmental burdens of water, GHG emissions, nitrogen and land for agriculture by 2050, in order to calculate the increase in production that would be required to meet food demand under the current pattern of a ‘GDP-based’ diet, associated with increases in refined sugars and fats, oils and meat and increasing global affluence.

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The researchers estimated that 776 cubic metres (m3) of water, 15.3 kilograms (kg) of nitrogen, 299 kg of carbon dioxide (CO2) and 0.85 hectares (ha) of land are required annually to support an average global diet for one person in 2015. Animal products account for much of the water (43%), nitrogen (58%), GHG emissions (74%) and land (87%) required.

They calculated that footprint intensity would need to increase substantially to prevent further increases in environmental burdens by 2050 (65% for water, 85% for nitrogen, 72% for GHG and 97% for land area).

The research highlights that increasing agricultural footprint intensity is not likely to be enough to achieve food security while preventing further increases in agriculture’s environmental burden in the future; changes in diets and consumption patterns are likely to be required as well.

Source: Davis, K.F., Gephart, J.A., Emery, K.A., Leach, A.M., Galloway, J.N. & D'Odorico, P. (2016). Meeting future food demand with current agricultural resources. Global Environmental Change, (39): 125–132. DOI: 10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2016.05.004.