Feeding ten billion people is possible within four terrestrial planetary boundaries


Global agriculture puts heavy pressure on planetary boundaries, posing the challenge to achieve future food security without compromising Earth system resilience. On the basis of process-detailed, spatially explicit representation of four interlinked planetary boundaries (biosphere integrity, land-system change, freshwater use, nitrogen flows) and agricultural systems in an internally consistent model framework, we here show that almost half of current global food production depends on planetary boundary transgressions. Hotspot regions, mainly in Asia, even face simultaneous transgression of multiple underlying local boundaries. If these boundaries were strictly respected, the present food system could provide a balanced diet (2,355 kcal per capita per day) for 3.4 billion people only. However, as we also demonstrate, transformation towards more sustainable production and consumption patterns could support 10.2 billion people within the planetary boundaries analysed. Key prerequisites are spatially redistributed cropland, improved water–nutrient management, food waste reduction and dietary changes.

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Fig. 1: Simulated technological–cultural ‘U-turn’ towards increasing global food supply within four planetary boundaries.
Fig. 2: Current status of the four planetary boundaries.
Fig. 3: Effects on kcal net supply per FPU for each step of the technological–cultural U-turn.
Fig. 4: Number of people that could be fed assuming alternative food supply targets.

Data availability

Data supporting the main findings of this study are available via GFZ Data Services (https://doi.org/10.5880/PIK.2019.021)60. Further supplementary data are available from the corresponding author on request.

Code availability

Model code and analysis scripts are available from the corresponding author on request.


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V.H. was funded by DFG Priority Programme SPP 1689 and the Emil Aaltonen Foundation project ‘eat-less-water’. J.J. received support from the Open Philanthropy Project and partly from the U. Chicago RDCEP center (NSF grant #SES-146364). B.L.B. was supported by the EU’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (projects SIM4NEXUS, grant agreement 689150, and SUSTAg in the frame of the ERA-NET FACCE SURPLUS, grant agreement 652615 and BMBF FKZ 031B0170A). I.F. was funded by the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Environmental Research and the project ‘Earth Resilience in the Anthropocene’ funded by ERC. M.J. got funding from Maa- ja vesitekniikan tuki ry. M.K. was supported by the Academy of Finland project WASCO (grant no. 305471), the Academy of Finland SRC project ‘Winland’, the Emil Aaltonen foundation project ‘eat-less-water’ and the ERC under Horizon 2020 (grant no. 819202). We acknowledge the European Regional Development Fund, BMBF and Land Brandenburg for providing resources on the high-performance computer system at PIK.

Author information

D.G. designed the study and led the writing; V.H. and J.J. conducted the model simulations; B.L.B., I.F., M.J., M.K. and S.S. contributed specific parts of the concept and data analysis; W.L., J.R. and H.J.S. contributed to overall analysis design; all authors contributed to manuscript writing.

Correspondence to Dieter Gerten.

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Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Agronomic restrictions and opportunities within the planetary boundaries.

Shown are effects on agricultural area, irrigation water use and nitrogen fertilization through restoration of the safe operating space and, respectively, through expansions within it. Fractional coverage with cropland and pastures in the reference period (grey), fractions freed (abandoned) for maintaining the boundaries for biosphere integrity and land-system change (brown), and fractions added through sustainable agricultural land expansion including restoration of degraded land (turquoise) (a). Change in water withdrawal (km3 yr–1) through either restriction (red) or expansion of irrigation (blue) within the safe space for freshwater use (b). Change in N fertilization (Mt) through either restriction (purple) or expansion (green) within the safe space for N flows (c). All data shown at 0.5° grid cell level and for 1980–2009.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Number of concurrently transgressed boundaries.

Shown are only cases where >10% kcal net supply relies on transgression of the respective boundary. Dark grey areas: non-zero effects <10%; light grey areas: no effect.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figs. 1–11, Tables 1–3, discussion, methods and references.

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Gerten, D., Heck, V., Jägermeyr, J. et al. Feeding ten billion people is possible within four terrestrial planetary boundaries. Nat Sustain (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-019-0465-1

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