Professor Johan Rockström, director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, compared the twin global challenges at the Sustainability Summit in London yesterday (March 23).
“Meeting the climate challenge [to decarbonise world economies] is the easy one. Meeting the health [diet] challenge is the difficult one,” Rockström told FoodManufacture.co.uk.
Improving diets by encouraging people to choose plant-based foods – in preference to resource-hungry meat-based meals – would mitigate climate change and improve health; particularly in the developed world.
Changing diets would be a tough challenge because meat eating was so “culturally embedded in western societies”, he warned.
Meat eating was so ‘culturally embedded’
But Rockström remained optimistic that the humanitarian and political imperatives of feeding the world’s burgeoning population – estimated by the United Nations to reach 11.2bn by 2100 – could be reconciled with climate management strategies.
“That can be achieved by a transition from an unhealthy food system to a healthy food system,” he said.
In addition to switching from meat-based meals to more plant-based diets, the professor suggested reclaiming degraded land for agriculture and cutting food waste.
Reclaiming degraded land for food production – estimated to total 100Mha – would make a big contribution to boosting output.
- Switch from meat to plant-based diets
- Reclaim degraded land
- Cut food waste
Similarly, cutting food waste – which now accounted for 30% of global production – would have a significant impact on the availability of global food.
But he rejected the idea of increasing production by bringing virgin land into agricultural production.
‘Cannot feed humanity by expanding agriculture’
“We cannot feed humanity by expanding agriculture [on virgin land],” said Rockström. “We have already transferred 50% of the land surface to agriculture. What remains of the globe’s natural capital should be left untouched to protect biodiversity.”
While the planet had proved remarkably resilient in the past, a tipping point had now been reached, according to the consensus of scientific opinion.
Decarbonising economies was vital to safeguard biodiversity, said the professor.
“What we do in the next 50 years [to manage climate change] will determine outcomes over the next 50,000 years,” concluded Rockström.
Meanwhile, founder of the EAT Initiative Gunhild Stordalen highlighted the worldwide contrast between the hungry and the obese.
“Globally about 800M people are getting too little to eat, while 2bn are overweight or obese,” said Stordalen, who is a medical doctor.
One promising solution to boosting sustainable food could be found in the seas, she added. “There’s huge potential coming from the world’s oceans to solve the protein puzzle in a sustainable way.”
The Sustainability Summit – Scaling up action was organised in central London by The Economist Intelligence Unit.
Watch out next week for our report of how drinks giant Diageo and packaging multinational Tetra Pak are prioritising sustainability in the production systems.
“What we do in the next 50 years [to manage climate change] will determine outcomes over the next 50,000 years.”