Food production, at its current rate, could be enough to meet global nutritional needs more than 30 years from now – but only if people are willing to make some radical changes to their diet, according to new research.
Those changes include a shift from most meat and dairy to plant-based food choices, according to new research published in the journal Elementa. This would have the added benefit of reducing the amount of food that could be eaten by humans, but is instead given to animals – a process the researchers found wasted significant calories.
Malnutrition Deeply spoke to one of the authors of the paper, Nick Hewitt from the Lancaster Environment Centre at Lancaster University, about the key findings from his research and how policymakers might put these lessons into practice.
Malnutrition Deeply: What led you into this research?
Nick Hewitt: I’m actually a chemist, and in fact I work on air quality, that is my main work. I work on interactions between the biosphere and the atmosphere, and the effects they have on air quality. More recently, I’ve been working on urban air pollution. But I have a sort of long-standing interest in food and on sustainability in general.
I’ve done this work with my friend and colleague Mike Berners-Lee, who is an environmental consultant – he was the first author on the paper. We just developed this idea of there’s always a focus on biotechnology and improving crop yields, especially among biologists, but actually has anyone really looked to see how much food there is in the world to see where we stand at the moment?
Malnutrition Deeply: Stepping back to look at the bigger picture perspective, what made you hit on those as the potential outcomes or potential ways of looking at future food systems?
Hewitt: I have to declare interest here in that I’m a vegetarian, a long-standing vegetarian, and have a passionate interest in vegetarianism. That’s why we sort of focused a bit on the meat angle, although the numbers show that meat production is where the focus should be as it is so incredibly inefficient.
But also, one of Mike’s customers for his business is a food retailer, and one of their interests is on reducing food waste. And in the press, in the U.K. at least, there’s been a tremendous focus on food waste, and we thought, “Well, do the numbers really add up here? Should the focus be on waste or should it be elsewhere in the food system?”
Waste is important, we should reduce waste, that goes without saying. Twenty-two percent of all calories are wasted, we think, but actually that’s not the biggest deal. That’s why we came up with these scenarios. We wanted to look at waste, we wanted to look at meat production, we wanted to look at non-food uses, biofuels in particular. And then we had a scenario where we tried to reduce 50 percent of those waste streams, because maybe that’s more realistic in the future.
Malnutrition Deeply: In creating those scenarios, were you thinking about long-term potential policy implications or how this might actually be adopted?
Hewitt: These came from our previous paper, which was about consumer dietary choices. So what can a consumer do to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of their food intake? At that point we arrived at what we thought were more realistic scenarios that people could actually adopt themselves. Maybe I could take a conscious decision to reduce my food waste by half, make a conscious decision to reduce my meat consumption by half. I think they are viable options that individuals might have. If you start telling people, “Yeah, you’ve got to cut out all waste.” Well, that’s not viable. That’s never going to happen.
Malnutrition Deeply: Do you foresee a potential to work with policymakers to translate some of these findings into a more systemic process?
Hewitt: We would love to do that. There are simple steps we could take to make the world more abundant and secure in food than necessarily going down high-tech, genetic-modification routes first.
For example, 22 percent of all human edible crops grown are wasted, and there is definitely scope for reducing that number. Fourteen percent of human edible crops grown are converted into non-food uses, mainly biofuel. Well, that’s nuts. In order to provide less than one percent of the global fuel requirements, we’re diverting 14 percent of food. Policymakers need to think through these things and see where the levers are.
Malnutrition Deeply: What else did you see as key findings from your research?
Hewitt: Well, I think the big picture for me, the big number is that 30 percent of human edible crops grown are fed to animals. That is over 1,700 kcal per person per day globally. And in doing so, animals return less than 600 kcal per person per day of meat and dairy back into the food system. Probably half of those 600 kcal per person per day are produced because animals also eat grass and other vegetable matter that humans can’t eat. So we could still have about 300 kcal per person per day of meat and dairy even without feeding animals all that human-edible food. We’re effectively wasting about 22 percent of all the crops we grow, we’re wasting them by putting them into animals that only get partially eaten and which themselves are inefficient converters of plant matter into meat..
Well, do people realize that? I’m not sure they do. Of course, some people who think about it are concerned. But generally are we aware that 22 percent of all the food that’s grown is wasted because of our desire to eat meat that’s produced in an industrial setting?
That is the biggest waste in the whole system, followed by actual waste, as in food rotting or being thrown away, and of course it’s self-evident we should reduce that. Of course it is. But there is a limit to how much you can reduce that.
The third is biofuel production. So 14 percent of all crops grown are put into non-food uses, and by far the largest part of that is biofuel. And what do we get in return? We get less than 1 percent of our global fuel requirements.
The last thing would be if crop yields increase in the future, which they probably will, the benefit of that will be completely wasted if those crops go into biofuels and very, very largely wasted if those crops go into feeding animals. So we really have to think about why we grow food in the first place. If the primary purpose of food is to feed people, and there are people in the world without enough to eat, then we really ought to think carefully about how it’s used, and putting it into biofuel is not a rational thing to do.