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We need a complete change in agriculture to feed the planet

Climate change has made it more difficult to produce foods efficiently and in a great enough quantity to feed the world and its growing population. But how we accomplish this will mean a change in agriculture.

According to a new study by researchers at the University of Guelph, after comparing global agricultural production with nutritionists’ consumption recommendations – they found a drastic mismatch. The results of their study were published in the journal PLOS ONE last week.

“We simply can’t all adopt a healthy diet under the current global agriculture system,” said study co-author Prof. Evan Fraser, holder of the Canada Research Chair in Global Food Security and director of U of G’s Arrell Food Institute.

“Results show that the global system currently overproduces grains, fats, and sugars, while production of fruits and vegetables and, to a smaller degree, protein is not sufficient to meet the nutritional needs of the current population.”

Withered sunflowers in a field near Magdeburg are victims of the drought and high temperatures gripp...

Withered sunflowers in a field near Magdeburg are victims of the drought and high temperatures gripping northern Germany

The problem with agriculture
According to the study, overall, agriculture produces enough calories for the world’s current population, but that is not to say we are producing enough fruits and vegetables and protein sources. Agriculture today is over-producing energy-dense foods, especially sugars, cereals, and oils.

There are two other issues to take into account when talking about our current agricultural methods. One is climate change. There is no way to get around this issue because global agriculture is already being impacted by a changing climate and extreme weather conditions.

The second issue is greenhouse gas emissions. The agricultural sector is one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gases – second only to burning fossil fuels.

Beef cattle on a feedlot in the Texas Panhandle

Beef cattle on a feedlot in the Texas Panhandle
H2O (CC BY-SA 3.0)

According to the World Resources Institute, the 10 countries with the largest agricultural emissions in 2011 were (in descending order): China, Brazil, United States, India, Indonesia, Russian Federation, Democratic Republic of Congo, Argentina, Myanmar, and Pakistan. Together, these countries contributed 51 percent of global agricultural emissions.

Currently, researchers and scholars propose addressing the problem of feeding the world’s population by increasing agricultural production, investing in technology to boost yields, changing diets, or reducing food waste. But with fixing the mismatch in our agricultural sector, we could actually reduce the amount of land needed to feed the world.

The study tackles nutrition
To solve the problem, researchers calculated the number of servings per person on the planet for each food group based on Harvard University’s “Healthy Eating Plate” guide, which recommends that half of our diet consists of fruits and vegetables; 25 per cent, whole grains; and 25 per cent, protein, fat and dairy.


Harvard Medical School

The researchers then calculated the amount of land currently being used for farming and how much would be needed if everyone followed the nutritional recommendations. They then projected those numbers for 2050, when the global population is expected to reach 9.8 billion.

When global production is divided into different food groups, an interesting picture emerges. Specifically, global agriculture currently produces 12 servings of grains, 5 of fruits and vegetables, 3 of oil and fat, 3 of protein, 1 of milk and 4 servings of sugar per person per day, according to the study.

“In contrast, using the HHEP, we estimate that global agriculture production should provide 8 servings of whole grains, 15 servings of fruits and vegetables, 1 serving of oil, 5 servings of protein, and 1 serving of milk per person per day to provide a nutritionally balanced diet,” says the study.

Global food production (blue bars) are from FAO (2011) data and nutritional recommendations (orange ...

Global food production (blue bars) are from FAO (2011) data and nutritional recommendations (orange bars) are based on Harvard University Healthy Eating Plate model. All data are displayed in dietary servings following the CFG (Canadian Food Guidelines) and USDA guidelines.

“What we are producing at a global level is not what we should be producing according to nutritionists,” said Fraser, whose co-authors include Krishna KC, a research scientist in the Department of Geography, Environment and Geomatics, Profs. Nigel Raine and Madhur Anand, School of Environmental Sciences, and Prof. Malcolm Campbell, Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology.

Because carbohydrates are relatively easy to produce and can feed many people, developing countries focus on growing grains, said KC, lead author of the study. “Also fat, sugar and salt are tasty and are what we humans crave, so we have a real hunger for these foods,” said KC. “All of these factors combined have resulted in a world system that is really overproducing these types of foods.”

“Feeding the next generation is one of the most pressing challenges facing the 21st century. For a growing population, our calculations suggest that the only way to eat a nutritionally balanced diet, save land and reduce greenhouse gas emission is to consume and produce more fruits and vegetables as well as a transition to diets higher in plant-based protein.”

Basically, the findings in this study echo the thoughts outlined in the IPCC’s stunning 1.5 Degree Report: we need to completely rethink the way that we manage our food, transportation, government, and production if we have any hope of supporting the human population

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We are deeply saddened to announce the passing of our dear friend Karen Graham, who served as Editor-at-Large at Digital Journal. She was 78 years old. Karen's view of what is happening in our world was colored by her love of history and how the past influences events taking place today. Her belief in humankind's part in the care of the planet and our environment has led her to focus on the need for action in dealing with climate change. It was said by Geoffrey C. Ward, "Journalism is merely history's first draft." Everyone who writes about what is happening today is indeed, writing a small part of our history.

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