How the global food system will be able to feed almost 10bn people by 2050, while contributing its required share of greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reductions over the next three decades, is a question now constantly being asked. The simple question contrasts starkly with the complexity and multiplicity of ways in which it might be answered.

There is, of course, no single solution but the interconnectedness of the challenges and responses means there is huge value in setting out a comprehensive answer to the question.

Creating a Sustainable Food Future, published today (17 July) by US-based research organisation the World Resources Institute (WRI), in partnership with the World Bank, United Nations Environment (UNEP) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), takes on precisely this task. 

It is no surprise, therefore, to find the report runs to 555 pages. However, the way WRI quantifies the scale of the challenge provides a surprisingly simple, and perhaps revelatory, framework. 

Extending the idea behind the Emissions Gap Report, which UNEP has published annually since 2010, WRI sets out the 2050 challenge in terms of closing three gaps relating to food, land use and GHG emissions. 

The report concludes there is a 56% “food gap” between what was produced in 2010 and what will be needed in 2050. There is also a 593m-hectare “land gap” which means if agricultural expansion were to continue on current trends to meet the higher demand in 2050, additional farmland equivalent to twice the size of India would have to be created. That projection possibly provides the most vivid representation of what an unsustainable food future looks like.

The sustainable future the report sets out has a defining premise that the food gap cannot be closed by expanding agricultural land. Instead, agricultural land should be held at 2010 levels or less, while the gap is closed by productivity gains and by demand-side factors, notably changing diets and reduced food loss and waste.

Land use is a defining factor in creating a sustainable food system. The report’s methodology itself speaks to enormous implications that land use change has in relation to GHG emissions. The report takes an uncompromising view on the competition for land food agriculture faces from feedstock for biofuels. Among the 22 actions, the report states the diversion of both edible crops and land to bioenergy production has to be avoided.

Emphasising land as a resource is also instructive for food manufacturers. To date, food companies have generally focused on two resource areas in relation to their agricultural supply chains – water and carbon emissions – but land use is expected to become an increasingly prominent metric in the future.

However, during one of the panel discussions at the launch event, Kevin Rabinovitch, global vice president of sustainability at Mars, articulated why the US-based food group had decided to measure land use and how valuable it can be. 

In 2017, Mars set a goal to hold land use at current levels, which would mean the increased demand any growth in the business creates would need to be met through making production from that land more efficient. 

“In doing the analysis we quickly realised that in agriculture the emissions from land use change are actually as important, or in some crops more important, than the emissions from the agricultural practices,” Rabinovitch said. “Our targets actually include those emissions so the greenhouse gas emissions from land use change are part of our carbon targets which is helpful from a business point of view because it means instead of having carbon goals and deforestation objectives we have deforestation objectives that deliver against our carbon goals.”

The third gap the report quantifies is an 11-gigaton “greenhouse gas mitigation gap” between expected emissions from agriculture in 2050 and the level required to meet the Paris Agreement. A further requirement for the sustainable food future, enshrined in the report, is to “ensure that agriculture contributes to poverty reduction through inclusive economic and social development”.

The report then details five courses in its “Menu for a sustainable food future”, which in turn include 22 separate interventions. It uses a new model called GlobAgri-WRR, which quantifies the contribution each “menu item” can make to closing the different gaps. “We came up with a modest agenda of only five course and 22 menu items and we basically have to do all of them,” lead author Tim Searchinger told the audience at the Washington D.C. launch earlier today.

One clear benefit of attempting to frame an all-encompassing comprehensive “answer” to the 2050 global food challenge is to identify solutions which make telling contributions to closing more than one of the gaps or all three. The term “triple win” was employed by more than one of the speakers at today’s events. Such solutions warrant particular attention and investment.

The GlobAgri-WRR modelling provides further compelling evidence of the huge importance of cutting food loss and waste to the broader global food security challenge. The report models reductions in food loss and waste of 10%, 25% and 50%. Interestingly, it concludes the 50% target included in the UN Sustainable Development Goals will only be possible with the development of  “major new technologies”. A 25% reduction in food loss and waste would reduce the size of the food gap from a 56% shortfall in crop calories to 50%, close the land gap by 27% and the GHG mitigation gap by 15%. 

The report rates this target as “highly ambitious”. Nevertheless, reducing food loss and waste is the first item of the first course of the WRI’s menu which details actions to reduce growth in the demand for food and other agricultural products. Richard Waite, an associate at WRI, again stressed the “triple win” but made the stark observation that currently 25% of arable land is “used for food that never reaches the table”.

As Mars’ detailed analysis of land use underlines, multinational food companies in general have substantially increased the resources they put into measuring and improving the sustainability of their agricultural supply chains. Exposure to climate change risk, along with an increasing potential for reputational damage relating to concern over farmer poverty, has shown how invested food manufacturers are in their agricultural supply chains.

Searchinger observed that 70% of the solutions outlined in the report relate in some way to agricultural productivity. It is notable, however, that two of the most crucial actions the report sets out are demand-side interventions, in which food manufacturers have a particularly significant role to play and a unique contribution to make.

In addition to reducing food loss and waste, the second item on the menu is, unsurprisingly, to “change diets particularly by reducing ruminant meat consumption to reduce the three gaps in ways that contribute to better nutrition”.

The report analyses explore scenarios in which we cut back total global consumption of all animal-based foods by 10% and 30%. Once again, the methodology appears to add compellingly to the evidence base for a switch to plant-based foods. By 2050, the 10% cut would reduce the food gap by 4%, the land gap by 44%, and the GHG mitigation gap by 22%. However, the 30% cut would be enough to close the food gap by 12%, nearly eliminate new net cropland expansion, and close 59% of the GHG mitigation gap.

Underlining the important role food companies have to play in meeting this objective, Waite emphasised the vital importance of “marketing science and behavioural science” in changing food consumption habits.