Fixing the world's "faulty food system" is increasingly being recognised as one of the key ways to fight climate change as well as tackle high rates of both malnutrition and obesity.
Each year 821 million people suffer from hunger – a figure that is rising despite an increase in global food production. And at the same time, around two billion people are eating too much of the wrong type of food.
The world is also facing an unprecedented climate emergency, with temperatures hurtling towards a dangerous tipping point.
Last week, a United Nations report concluded that eating less meat could help tackle the dual crisis of climate change and hunger. Switching to plant-based diets, the UN said, could both free up land and reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
With the global population set to hit almost 10 billion by 2050, the pressure to find new approaches to feed the world's population is not going to disappear.
Almost half the current global crop production goes to feeding livestock, however on average just 15 per cent of these calories are then passed on to humans when we consume meat.
Climate change also poses a major threat to food security as increasingly common extreme weather events devastate crop land. Simultaneously, agriculture is one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions.
“At one level we don't need to grow any more, we should stop feeding our food to bloody livestock and then we've got all the calories we need,” Tim Benton, professor of population ecology at Leeds University, told The Telegraph.
“Food production, and especially livestock production, is a major driver of climate change, biodiversity loss, water and air quality degradation and soil degradation. We have to start actually recognising that we can’t carry on as we are,” Prof Benton added.
But is the solution to such complicated challenges really as simple as changing how we eat?
One in ten suffering from chronic hunger
Hunger is a part of everyday life in certain parts of the world – 11 of the 15 most undernourished countries are in Africa, with the worst rates found in the Central African Republic where three in every five people suffer malnutrition.
In Yemen, some 85,000 children are thought to have died from extreme hunger between April 2015 and October 2018 as the country struggles with civil war and military intervention from Saudi Arabia.
But many countries with high levels of hunger often also produce plenty of food. Pakistan was the ninth biggest producer of beef in 2013 – yet more than one in five of their population suffer from chronic undernourishment.
Experts have warned that future conflicts will increasingly focus on a struggle for dwindling resources, especially food and water, unless more urgent action is taken on a global scale.
“The most potent resource for any national government is access to energy, water and food, and so as the world gets more complicated these sorts of things are going to matter more and more,” said Prof Benton.
Insatiable appetites for meat
The livestock industry is viewed by many experts as a serious threat to food security because of its size and unsustainability, as well as the negative effects on our health of a diet overly rich in meat. Every one and a half years, more animals are slaughtered than the total number of humans who ever lived.
As countries become wealthier their eating habits shift towards more meat-based diets, fuelling a massive expansion in livestock farming and contributing some 8.1 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases in 2010.
“By 2050 we're forecast to be consuming 60 per cent more meat and dairy, a staggering 1.2 trillion litres of dairy milk and 500 billion kilograms of meat per year,” said Joseph Poore, researcher at the University of Oxford, warning that such growth is unsustainable.
With half of global crop production already going to feed livestock such a scenario could have catastrophic consequences warn scientists.
In the UK each person consumes an average of 81.5 kg of meat each year, up from 69.2 kg in 1961, despite associated health risks such as obesity, diabetes and bowel cancer.
Professor Benton said:“If you look at the UK, the amount of money that it’s costing us to make people better through the health service is around 37 per cent of all our tax revenue and that’s going up fast.
“That’s partly because of an ageing population, but it’s also partly because of malnourishment in the form of obesity,” he said.
Drought causes over 80 per cent of agricultural damage
Agriculture, especially livestock production, is a major driver of climate change, but it also one of the most sensitive industries to the effects of changes to weather.
Extreme climate disasters such as floods, storms and droughts are on the rise, with an average of 213 such events occurring each year between 1990 and 2016. These events often devastate wide areas of delicate crop land.
This harms agricultural yields, leading to food price hikes and loss of income, reducing access to food.
This captures some of the complexity of the system and its highly integrated nature. It also highlights how the problem of feeding the population won't be solved by simply growing more food.
Reports of crop damage due to climate change are becoming increasingly common, with farmers in Ghana, Tanzania and Nigeria recently describing delays to the start of the rainy season, abnormal mid-season heatwaves and high-intensity rainfall. These have all led to crop losses.
Increasing water scarcity is also a serious concern as the agricultural industry accounts for 70 per cent of global water use.
Groundwater has already been depleted worldwide for crop irrigation, and as these sources run dry it will increasingly limit where we can grow crops.
Meanwhile, as the planet continues to warm, sea levels are predicted to rise, putting low-lying farms at considerable risk, while also restricting future expansion.
Scientists have warned that any initiatives to ensure future food security must account for global climate change and seek to minimise agriculture’s contribution.
Changing diets and tackling poverty key
"In 20 years time we will have 10 billion people on the planet and we simply can’t sustain those numbers without changes in diet," says Simeon Van Der Molen, founder of Moving Mountains, a British manufacturer of plant-based burgers. “Cellular agriculture is the future.”
Plant-based meat alternatives such as the 'Impossible Burger' have been touted as a viable and much more sustainable alternative to conventional meat.
Some of these products have already started to get a run out on Britain's high streets. Greggs achieved notable success with its vegan sausage roll and KFC recently announced it is to begin trialling a vegan Imposter Burger, featuring a bespoke Quorn fillet.
Newer plant-based products such as the 'Impossible Burger' are now able to get much closer to the sensory profile and texture of meat, making it more appealing to many consumers.
They have a similar nutritional profile to meat but require significantly less water and energy to produce.
Insects have also been touted as a potential alternative to meat. They have the advantage of being high in protein and also have a much higher conversion rate of energy input to received calories.
However, insect-based meat replacements remain a very niche consumer product and public acceptance in the West remains a long way off.
But there is another major emerging food technology which has expanded rapidly in recent years and has drawn lots of interest and corporate investment, that of lab grown meat.
This 'meat' is grown in special bioreactors from cells extracted harmlessly from livestock. The result is a product that is almost indistinguishable from conventionally produced meat.
Leaders in the cultured meat industry are confident that their product has the edge over other meat alternatives because it has the same taste and texture profile as the real thing.
“We’re pretty optimistic that as long as it really has the same taste, texture and smell, we think that most consumers will favour the product that doesn’t have all the guilt surrounding it in terms of animal welfare and environmental damage," said Sarah Lucas, head of operations at Mosa Meat, the company responsible for the first lab-grown hamburger.
Lab-grown meat is still a few years from consumer availability and the technology still has some way to go - that first lab grown hamburger cost €250,000 to produce - but management consultant AT Kearney predicts that it will make up over a third of global meat supply by 2040.
However Prof Benton has warned that systemic changes to the whole agricultural system will be needed to achieve sustainable and nutritious food security.
He says that tackling poverty will be key in this battle: “If people are too poor to buy a healthy diet, why does everybody leap to the conclusion that it’s the food price that’s the problem and not the poverty?
“For me, the challenge of feeding 10 billion people is not how do we double agricultural production of the wrong things. It is how to do this systemic transformation so people can eat healthily in a way that doesn’t create a lot of waste and doesn’t create a lot of unsustainability.”
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