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.
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Setting life cycle assessment (LCA) in a future-oriented context: the combination of qualitative scenarios and LCA in the agri-food sector
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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.
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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.
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Extended data figures and tables
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).
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.
This file contains an overview of income and population changes in the socioeconomic development pathways.
This file contains estimates of global food consumption in the dietary scenarios.
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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
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Setting life cycle assessment (LCA) in a future-oriented context: the combination of qualitative scenarios and LCA in the agri-food sector
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Nature Food (2022)
Nature Sustainability (2022)
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