The food system is a major driver of climate change, changes in land use, depletion of freshwater resources, and pollution of aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems through excessive nitrogen and phosphorus inputs. Here we show that between 2010 and 2050, as a result of expected changes in population and income levels, the environmental effects of the food system could increase by 50–90% in the absence of technological changes and dedicated mitigation measures, reaching levels that are beyond the planetary boundaries that define a safe operating space for humanity. We analyse several options for reducing the environmental effects of the food system, including dietary changes towards healthier, more plant-based diets, improvements in technologies and management, and reductions in food loss and waste. We find that no single measure is enough to keep these effects within all planetary boundaries simultaneously, and that a synergistic combination of measures will be needed to sufficiently mitigate the projected increase in environmental pressures.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution
Open Access articles citing this article.
A better use of fertilizers is needed for global food security and environmental sustainability
Agriculture & Food Security Open Access 23 March 2023
Can the Wild Perennial, Rhizomatous Rice Species Oryza longistaminata be a Candidate for De Novo Domestication?
Rice Open Access 16 March 2023
The EU sustainable food systems framework - potential for climate action
npj Climate Action Open Access 06 March 2023
Access Nature and 54 other Nature Portfolio journals
Get Nature+, our best-value online-access subscription
$29.99 / 30 days
cancel any time
Subscribe to this journal
Receive 51 print issues and online access
$199.00 per year
only $3.90 per issue
Rent or buy this article
Get just this article for as long as you need it
Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout
The data that support the findings of this study are available from the Oxford University Research Archive (ORA; https://ora.ox.ac.uk) at https://ora.ox.ac.uk/objects/uuid:d9676f6b-abba-48fd-8d94-cc8c0dc546a2.
Smith, P. et al. in Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change (eds Edenhofer, O. et al.) 811–922 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2014).
Vermeulen, S. J., Campbell, B. M. & Ingram, J. S. I. Climate change and food systems. Annu. Rev. Environ. Resour. 37, 195–222 (2012).
Foley, J. A. et al. Global consequences of land use. Science 309, 570–574 (2005).
Newbold, T. et al. Global effects of land use on local terrestrial biodiversity. Nature 520, 45–50 (2015).
Shiklomanov, I. A. & Rodda, J. C. World Water Resources at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, 2004).
Wada, Y. et al. Global depletion of groundwater resources. Geophys. Res. Lett. 37, L20402 (2010).
Cordell, D. & White, S. Life’s bottleneck: sustaining the world’s phosphorus for a food secure future. Annu. Rev. Environ. Resour. 39, 161–188 (2014).
Diaz, R. J. & Rosenberg, R. Spreading dead zones and consequences for marine ecosystems. Science 321, 926–929 (2008).
Robertson, G. P. & Vitousek, P. M. Nitrogen in agriculture: balancing the cost of an essential resource. Annu. Rev. Environ. Resour. 34, 97–125 (2009).
Campbell, B. et al. Agriculture production as a major driver of the Earth system exceeding planetary boundaries. Ecol. Soc. 22, 8 (2017).
Rockström, J. et al. A safe operating space for humanity. Nature 461, 472–475 (2009).
Steffen, W. et al. Planetary boundaries: guiding human development on a changing planet. Science 347, 1259855 (2015).
Davis, K. F. et al. Meeting future food demand with current agricultural resources. Glob. Environ. Change 39, 125–132 (2016).
Jalava, M., Kummu, M., Porkka, M., Siebert, S. & Varis, O. Diet change—a solution to reduce water use? Environ. Res. Lett. 9, 074016 (2014).
Springmann, M., Godfray, H. C. J., Rayner, M. & Scarborough, P. Analysis and valuation of the health and climate change cobenefits of dietary change. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 113, 4146–4151 (2016).
Tilman, D. & Clark, M. Global diets link environmental sustainability and human health. Nature 515, 518–522 (2014).
Hoekstra, A. Y. & Wiedmann, T. O. Humanity’s unsustainable environmental footprint. Science 344, 1114–1117 (2014).
Carpenter, S. R. & Bennett, E. M. Reconsideration of the planetary boundary for phosphorus. Environ. Res. Lett. 6, 014009 (2011).
de Vries, W., Kros, J., Kroeze, C. & Seitzinger, S. P. Assessing planetary and regional nitrogen boundaries related to food security and adverse environmental impacts. Curr. Opin. Environ. Sustain. 5, 392–402 (2013).
Gerten, D. et al. Towards a revised planetary boundary for consumptive freshwater use: role of environmental flow requirements. Curr. Opin. Environ. Sustain. 5, 551–558 (2013).
Gordon, L. J. et al. Rewiring food systems to enhance human health and biosphere stewardship. Environ. Res. Lett. 12, 100201 (2017).
Bodirsky, B. L. et al. Reactive nitrogen requirements to feed the world in 2050 and potential to mitigate nitrogen pollution. Nat. Commun. 5, 3858 (2014).
Erb, K.-H. et al. Exploring the biophysical option space for feeding the world without deforestation. Nat. Commun. 7, 11382 (2016).
Conijn, J. G., Bindraban, P. S., Schröder, J. J. & Jongschaap, R. E. E. Can our global food system meet food demand within planetary boundaries? Agric. Ecosyst. Environ. 251, 244–256 (2018).
Lewis, S. L. We must set planetary boundaries wisely. Nature 485, 417–418 (2012).
Montoya, J. M., Donohue, I. & Pimm, S. L. Planetary boundaries for biodiversity: implausible science, pernicious policies. Trends Ecol. Evol. 33, 71–73 (2018).
Schlesinger, W. H. Planetary boundaries: thresholds risk prolonged degradation. Nat. Rep. Clim. Change 3, 112–113 (2009).
Gustavsson, J., Cederberg, C., Sonesson, U., Van Otterdijk, R. & Meybeck, A. Global Food Losses and Food Waste: Extent, Causes and Prevention (FAO, 2011).
United Nations General Assembly. Resolution Adopted by the General Assembly on 25 September 2015. 70/1 Transforming Our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (United Nations, 2015).
Parfitt, J., Barthel, M. & Macnaughton, S. Food waste within food supply chains: quantification and potential for change to 2050. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 365, 3065–3081 (2010).
Beach, R. H. et al. Global mitigation potential and costs of reducing agricultural non-CO2 greenhouse gas emissions through 2030. J. Integr. Environ. Sci. 12, 87–105 (2015).
Mueller, N. D. et al. Closing yield gaps through nutrient and water management. Nature 490, 254–257 (2012); corrigendum 494, 390 (2013).
Robinson, S. et al. The International Model for Policy Analysis of Agricultural Commodities and Trade (IMPACT)—Model Description for Version 3. IFPRI Discussion Paper 1483 (IFPRI, 2015).
Sutton, M. A. et al. Our Nutrient World: The Challenge to Produce More Food and Energy with Less Pollution (NERC/Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Edinburgh, UK, 2013).
World Health Organization. Human Energy Requirements. Report of a Joint FAO/WHO/UNU Expert Consultation, Rome, Italy, 17–24 October 2001 (World Health Organization, 2004).
World Health Organization. Diet, Nutrition and the Prevention of Chronic Diseases. Report of the Joint WHO/FAO Expert Consultation (World Health Organization, 2003).
Willett, W. C. & Stampfer, M. J. Current evidence on healthy eating. Annu. Rev. Public Health 34, 77–95 (2013).
Tubiello, F. N. et al. The FAOSTAT database of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. Environ. Res. Lett. 8, 015009 (2013).
Ramankutty, N., Evan, A. T., Monfreda, C. & Foley, J. A. Farming the planet: 1. Geographic distribution of global agricultural lands in the year 2000. Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 22, GB1003 (2008).
Heffer, P., Gruère, A. & Roberts, T. Assessment of Fertilizer Use by Crop at the Global Level 2010–2010/1. Report A/17/134 rev (International Fertilizer Association and International Plant Nutrition Institute, 2013).
Zhang, J. et al. Spatiotemporal dynamics of soil phosphorus and crop uptake in global cropland during the 20th century. Biogeosciences 14, 2055–2068 (2017).
Gerber, P. J. et al. Tackling Climate Change through Livestock: a Global Assessment of Emissions and Mitigation Opportunities (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2013).
Mueller, N. D. et al. Declining spatial efficiency of global cropland nitrogen allocation. Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 31, 245–257 (2017).
Herrero, M. et al. Greenhouse gas mitigation potentials in the livestock sector. Nat. Clim. Change 6, 452–461 (2016).
Katz, D. L. & Meller, S. Can we say what diet is best for health? Annu. Rev. Public Health 35, 83–103 (2014).
Rosenzweig, C. et al. Assessing agricultural risks of climate change in the 21st century in a global gridded crop model intercomparison. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 111, 3268–3273 (2014).
Nelson, G. C. et al. Climate change effects on agriculture: economic responses to biophysical shocks. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 111, 3274–3279 (2014).
Garnett, T. et al. Grazed and Confused? Ruminating on Cattle, Grazing Systems, Methane, Nitrous Oxide, the Soil Carbon Sequestration Question—and What it All Means for Greenhouse Gas Emissions (Food Climate Research Network, 2017).
Springmann, M. et al. Health and nutritional aspects of sustainable diet strategies and their association with environmental impacts: a global modelling analysis with country-level detail. Lancet Planet. Health 2, e451–e461 (2018).
Tilman, D. et al. Future threats to biodiversity and pathways to their prevention. Nature 546, 73–81 (2017).
Springmann, M. et al. Global and regional health effects of future food production under climate change: a modelling study. Lancet 387, 1937–1946 (2016).
Abel, G. J., Barakat, B., Kc, S. & Lutz, W. Meeting the Sustainable Development Goals leads to lower world population growth. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 113, 14294–14299 (2016).
Mozaffarian, D. Dietary and policy priorities for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity: a comprehensive review. Circulation 133, 187–225 (2016).
Mozaffarian, D. et al. Population approaches to improve diet, physical activity, and smoking habits: a scientific statement from the American Heart Association. Circulation 126, 1514–1563 (2012).
Ritchie, H., Reay, D. S. & Higgins, P. The impact of global dietary guidelines on climate change. Glob. Environ. Change 49, 46–55 (2018).
Gonzales Fischer, C. & Garnett, T. Plates, Pyramids and Planets. Developments in National Healthy and Sustainable Dietary Guidelines: a State of Play Assessment (Univ. Oxford, 2016).
Alexandratos, N. & Bruinsma, J. World Agriculture Towards 2030/2050: The 2012 Revision. ESA Working Paper No. 12-03 (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2012).
Wollenberg, E. et al. Reducing emissions from agriculture to meet the 2 °C target. Glob. Change Biol. 22, 3859–3864 (2016).
Carlson, K. M. et al. Greenhouse gas emissions intensity of global croplands. Nat. Clim. Change 7, 63–68 (2017).
Troell, M. et al. Does aquaculture add resilience to the global food system? Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 111, 13257–13263 (2014).
Chan, C. Y. et al. Fish to 2050 in the ASEAN Region (WorldFish Center and International Food Policy Research Institute, 2017).
Rosegrant, M. W. et al. Quantitative Foresight Modeling to Inform the CGIAR Research Portfolio (International Food Policy Research Institute, 2017).
van Vuuren, D. P. et al. The representative concentration pathways: an overview. Clim. Change 109, 5–31 (2011).
Fowler, D. et al. The global nitrogen cycle in the twenty-first century. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 368, 20130165 (2013).
Lassaletta, L., Billen, G., Grizzetti, B., Anglade, J. & Garnier, J. 50 year trends in nitrogen use efficiency of world cropping systems: the relationship between yield and nitrogen input to cropland. Environ. Res. Lett. 9, 105011 (2014).
Chateau, J., Dellink, R., Lanzi, E. & Magne, B. Long-Term Economic Growth and Environmental Pressure: Reference Scenarios for Future Global Projections (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2012).
Samir, K. C. & Lutz, W. The human core of the shared socioeconomic pathways: population scenarios by age, sex, and level of education for all countries to 2100. Glob. Environ. Change 42, 181–192 (2014).
O’Neill, B. C. et al. A new scenario framework for climate change research: the concept of shared socioeconomic pathways. Clim. Change 122, 387–400 (2014).
Interagency Working Group on Social Cost of Greenhouse Gases. Technical Update on the Social Cost of Carbon for Regulatory Impact Analysis—Under Executive Order 12866 (United States Government, 2013).
World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research. Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of Cancer: A Global Perspective (American Institute for Cancer Research, Washington DC, 2007).
World Health Organization. Guideline: Sugars Intake for Adults and Children (World Health Organization, 2015).
US Department of Health and Human Services & US Department of Agriculture. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 8th edn (Skyhorse Publishing, 2017).
Mozaffarian, D., Appel, L. J. & Van Horn, L. Components of a cardioprotective diet: new insights. Circulation 123, 2870–2891 (2011).
Tubiello, F. N. et al. Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use Emissions by Sources and Removals by Sinks: 1990–2011 Analysis. Working Paper Series ESS 14/02 (Food and Agriculture Organization Statistical Division, 2014).
Dinerstein, E. et al. An ecoregion-based approach to protecting half the terrestrial realm. Bioscience 67, 534–545 (2017).
Newbold, T. et al. Has land use pushed terrestrial biodiversity beyond the planetary boundary? A global assessment. Science 353, 288–291 (2016).
Rockström, J. et al. Planetary boundaries: exploring the safe operating space for humanity. Ecol. Soc. 14, 32 (2009).
Gerten, D. et al. Response to comment on “Planetary boundaries: guiding human development on a changing planet”. Science 348, 1217 (2015).
Pastor, A. V., Ludwig, F., Biemans, H., Hoff, H. & Kabat, P. Accounting for environmental flow requirements in global water assessments. Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. 18, 5041–5059 (2014).
Galloway, J. N. et al. Transformation of the nitrogen cycle: recent trends, questions, and potential solutions. Science 320, 889–892 (2008).
MacDonald, G. K., Bennett, E. M., Potter, P. A. & Ramankutty, N. Agronomic phosphorus imbalances across the world’s croplands. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 108, 3086–3091 (2011).
Oppenheimer, M. et al. in Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability (eds Field, C. B. et al.) 1039–1099 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2014).
This research was funded by the EAT as part of the EAT–Lancet Commission on Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems, and by the Wellcome Trust, Our Planet Our Health (Livestock, Environment and People (LEAP)), award number 205212/Z/16/Z. In addition, K.W. and D.M.-D. acknowledge support from the CGIAR Research Programs on Policies, Institutions, and Markets (PIM) and on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS). K.M.C. acknowledges support from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture Hatch project HAW01136-H, managed by the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. J.F. thanks Bloomberg Philanthropies and USAID for support. B.L.B. acknowledges support from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement 689150 SIM4NEXUS; the SUSTAg project; and the German Federal Minister of Education and Research (BMBF) under reference number FKZ 031B0170A. L.L. acknowledges support from MINECO, Spain, co-funded by European Commission ERDF (Ramon y Cajal fellowship, RYC-2016-20269). M.T. and M.J. thank FORMAS (grant 2016-00227). M.C. acknowledges a Balzan Award Prize and the Grand Challenge Curriculum at the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities. M.S. and H.C.J.G. acknowledge support from the Wellcome Trust, Our Planet Our Health (Livestock, Environment and People (LEAP)), award number 205212/Z/16/Z. P.S. acknowledges support from a British Heart Foundation Intermediate Basic Science Research Fellowship, FS/15/34/31656. M.R. thanks the British Heart Foundation, grant number 006/PSS/CORE/2016/OXFORD. J.R. acknowledges support from the ERC-2016-ADG 743080 (ERA).
Nature thanks K. J. Boote, G. Robertson, P. Smith and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.
The authors declare no competing interests.
Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
Extended data figures and tables
Extended Data Fig. 1 Reduction in environmental impacts when measures are combined.
Shown are combinations of all measures of medium ambition (comb(med)) and of all measures of high ambition (comb(high)). The mitigation measures include changes in food loss and waste (loss&waste), technological change (technology) and dietary change (diets) for a middle-of-the-road development pathway. The differences to development pathways that are more optimistic (higher income and lower population growth) and more pessimistic (lower income and higher population growth) are indicated by the uncertainty range around the markers (socio-econ).
Extended Data Fig. 2 Overview of major flows of phosphorus at the global scale.
The external acceptable phosphorus (P) input is determined by the acceptable long-term accumulation of phosphorus in the soil (P soil) and sediment (P sediment) at a phosphorus concentration in surface waters (P surface water) that equals a critical threshold. The phosphorus boundary is affected by the fraction of phosphorus that is taken up by humans (P human; frPuptake being the P-use efficiency, PUE, of the complete food chain, from mined phosphorus (P mine) to P intake) and the fraction of phosphorus excreted by humans (P waste) that is not recycled to land (1 − frPrec), which becomes a point source for water pollution. This phosphorus can only be stored in sediment at a given phosphorus-retention fraction (frPret,sed), while the recycled phosphorus can additionally be stored in soil (at a retention fraction frPret,soil). The critical phosphorus input (Pin(crit)) can be calculated as the sum of critical phosphorus retention in the soil and sediment, and a critical input to surface water (oceans) that is due to run-off and leaching. The Supplementary Information contains a full derivation of phosphorus flows and quantitative estimates of critical phosphorus inputs.
Extended Data Fig. 3 Planetary option space related to different control variables of nitrogen and yield-related feedback effects.
The control variables include nitrogen inputs related to synthetic fertilizers as used in the main analysis, and the more comprehensive measure of nitrogen surplus that accounts for all inputs and offtakes of nitrogen. The types of feedback effects include changes in nitrogen and phosphorus application associated with closing yield gaps by 75%, as modelled in the tech scenario for cropland use (main), and changes associated with closing yield gaps by 90%, as modelled in the tech+ scenario for cropland use (high yields). Colours and numbers indicate combinations that are below the lower bound of the planetary-boundary range (dark green, 1), below the mean value but above the minimum value (light green, 2), above the mean value but below the maximum (orange, 3), and above the maximum value (red, 4).
This file contains Supplementary Methods which provide additional detail about the food systems model, the planetary boundary estimate for phosphorus application, and the nitrogen budget model used in a sensitivity analysis.
Supplementary Table 1
This file contains an overview of income and population changes in the socioeconomic development pathways.
Supplementary Table 2
This file contains estimates of global food consumption in the dietary scenarios.
Rights and permissions
About this article
Cite this article
Springmann, M., Clark, M., Mason-D’Croz, D. et al. Options for keeping the food system within environmental limits. Nature 562, 519–525 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-018-0594-0
- Model Food Systems
- Safe Operating Space
- Plant-based Diet
- Planetary Boundaries Framework
- Reducing Food Loss
This article is cited by
Can the Wild Perennial, Rhizomatous Rice Species Oryza longistaminata be a Candidate for De Novo Domestication?
A better use of fertilizers is needed for global food security and environmental sustainability
Agriculture & Food Security (2023)
Traffic-light front-of-pack environmental labelling across food categories triggers more environmentally friendly food choices: a randomised controlled trial in virtual reality supermarket
International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity (2023)
Enhancing the ecological value of oil palm agriculture through set-asides
Nature Sustainability (2023)
Economic, social and environmental spillovers decrease the benefits of a global dietary shift
Nature Food (2023)
By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.