Dr Marco Springmann is the James Martin Fellow, Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food. His current research aims to assess the impacts of climate change, economic development and changing dietary habits on the global food system, and to analyse the effects of current and future policy approaches. We invited Dr Springmann to speak as part of this term’s series to hear his views on the future of food.
It is clear that the food system is a major driver of climate change, contributing to 25% of greenhouse gas emissions. Further, 40% of the earth’s surface is used to grow food, using 70% of global freshwater and polluting terrestrial and aquatic systems through fertiliser runoff.
The EAT-Lancet commission reports on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. They have produced the Food Systems Model to forecast future food projections for 159 countries which was highlighted the need to consider health impacts, food consumption, food production and environmental impacts. Using data from these 159 countries, the model projects that by 2050, all food-related planetary boundaries will have increased by around 60%, meaning we would exceed all mean planetary boundaries, which will be particularly problematic for the biogeochemical aspects; cycles in which chemical elements and simple substances are transferred between living systems and the environment. More specifically within food production, animal products are the greatest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and crop production is the highest contributor to land use, bluewater use, nitrogen and phosphorus applications. However, this is because we produce the greatest volume of this food group compared to any other, so per kilogram, animal products have the greatest impact.
There are several scenarios that can be followed to reduce the impact of food in the future. Firstly, one pathway is through reducing food loss and waste. The second Sustainable Development Goal aims to reduce food loss and waste by half by 2030. This would reduce environmental impacts by 6-14%. Going further, if food loss and waste were to be reduced by three quarters, which is probably close to the maximum value that can be theoretically avoided, this would reduce impacts by 11-20%. Secondly, changes in technology and management could have positive impacts. This might involve increasing crop yield per hectare, which reduces land use and increases biodiversity. One step towards this would be to redistribute fertiliser usage such as taking the volume of fertiliser used in east Asia and using this in Africa where it would have greater benefit, to address the greater needs. Appropriate management could also reduce livestock emissions by changing their feed, impacting meat production efficiency, which must be increased since cows currently eat 50kg to produce 1kg of meat. These standard changes would reduce impacts by 8-30%. Going further, strong technology and management could increase nitrogen use efficiency, and increase the recycling rates of phosphorus, which is non-renewable, which would require an effective sewage system. This would reduce impacts by 12-55%. Thirdly, dietary changes are required, achievable by following global dietary guidelines on recommendations relating to healthy bodyweight and physical activity. Going further, environmental impacts would be reduced by reducing meat consumption to one portion per week, limiting white meat to half a portion per day, as well as daily to one portion per day. Eating vegan is the most effective means of reducing the environmental impact of food. Dr Springmann’s work looks at the possible combinations of these three actions combined to map the future possibilities of food consumption patterns.
Dr Springmann is currently working on the LEAP project; Livestock, Environment and People. Welcome has funded the cross-departmental working groups on animal-sourced foods for four years. This has four aims, firstly to model food system outcomes for a comprehensive food-systems model of health, the environment and economy with policy simulations of inventions. Secondly to enable change by framing discourses, stakeholder dialogue on attitudes, political-economy analysis and policy-oriented digests. Thirdly to consider animal-sourced food and health through dietary interventions in the retail space and epidemiological analysis of animal-sourced food substitutes. Finally, to consider animal-sourced food and the environment through water use and quality, differentiated climate forcing, land-use change and planning.
In summary, the environmental impacts of the food system could increase dramatically due to expected changes in food consumption and production, and in the absence of targeted measures, environmental impacts could exceed all food-related planetary boundaries. No one single measure would be enough to mitigate the excess impacts, so a combination is required of reductions in food loss and waste, ambitious changes in technology and management, and ambitious changes towards healthier diets.
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