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.
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $8.25 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
Model code and analysis scripts are available from the corresponding author on request.
Griggs, D. et al. Sustainable development goals for people and planet. Nature 495, 305–307 (2013).
Campbell, B. M. 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).
Jägermeyr, J., Pastor, A., Biemans, H. & Gerten, D. Reconciling irrigated food production with environmental flows for sustainable development goals implementation. Nat. Commun. 8, 15900 (2017).
Tilman, D., Balzer, C., Hill, J. & Befort, B. L. Global food demand and the sustainable intensification of agriculture. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 108, 20260–20264 (2011).
Rockström, J. et al. Sustainable intensification of agriculture for human prosperity and global sustainability. Ambio 46, 4–17 (2017).
Searchinger, T. et al. Creating a Sustainable Food Future—A Menu of Solutions to Feed Nearly 10 Billion People by 2050 (World Resources Institute, 2018).
Foley, J. et al. Solutions for a cultivated planet. Nature 478, 337–342 (2011).
Mueller, N. D. et al. Closing yield gaps through nutrient and water management. Nature 490, 254–257 (2012).
Poore, J. & Nemecek, T. Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers. Science 360, 987–992 (2018).
Mauser, W. et al. Global biomass production potentials exceed expected future demand without the need for cropland expansion. Nat. Commun. 6, 8946 (2015).
Erb, K.-H. et al. Exploring the biophysical option space for feeding the world without deforestation. Nat. Commun. 7, 11382 (2016).
Jalava, M. et al. Diet change and food loss reduction: what is their combined impact on global water use and scarcity? Earths Future 4, 62–78 (2016).
West, P. C. et al. Leverage points for improving global food security and the environment. Science 345, 325–328 (2014).
Jägermeyr, J. et al. Integrated crop water management might sustainably halve the global food gap. Environ. Res. Lett. 11, 025002 (2016).
Heck, V., Hoff, H., Wirsenius, S., Meyer, C. & Kreft, H. Land use options for staying within the planetary boundaries—synergies and trade-offs between global and local sustainability goals. Global Environ. Change 49, 73–84 (2018).
Kummu, M. et al. Lost food, wasted resources: global food supply chain losses and their impacts on freshwater, cropland, and fertiliser use. Sci. Total Environ. 438, 477–489 (2012).
Kummu, M. et al. Bringing it all together: linking measures to secure nations’ food supply. Curr. Opin. Environ. Sustain. 29, 98–117 (2017).
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).
Henry, R. C. et al. Food supply and bioenergy production within the global cropland planetary boundary. PLoS ONE 13, e0194695 (2018).
Springmann, M. et al. Options for keeping the food system within environmental limits. Nature 562, 519–525 (2018).
Willet, W. et al. Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. Lancet 393, 447–492 (2019).
Schaphoff, S. et al. LPJmL4—a dynamic global vegetation model with managed land: part 2—model evaluation. Geosci. Model Dev. 11, 1377–1403 (2018).
Heck, V., Lucht, W., Gerten, D. & Popp, A. Biomass-based negative emissions difficult to reconcile with planetary boundaries. Nat. Clim. Change 8, 151–155 (2018).
Food Security Indicators (FAO, 2019); www.fao.org/economic/ess/ess-fs/ess-fadata
Kahiluoto, H., Kuisma, M., Kuokkanen, A., Mikkilä, M. & Linnanen, L. Taking planetary nutrient boundaries seriously: can we feed the people? Glob. Food Sec. 3, 16–21 (2014).
Rasmussen, L. V. et al. Social-ecological outcomes of agricultural intensification. Nat. Sustain. 1, 275–282 (2018).
Fischer, G. Transforming the global food system. Nature 562, 501–502 (2018).
Fader, M., Gerten, D., Krause, M., Lucht, W. & Cramer, W. Spatial decoupling of agricultural production and consumption: quantifying dependence of countries on food imports due to domestic land and water constraints. Environ. Res. Lett. 8, 014046 (2013).
O’Neill, D. W., Fanning, A. L., Lamb, W. F. & Steinberger, J. K. A good life for all within planetary boundaries. Nat. Sust. 1, 88–95 (2018).
World in Transition: Governing the Marine Heritage (WBGU, 2013).
Nash, K. L. et al. Planetary boundaries for a blue planet. Nat. Ecol. Evol. 1, 1625–1634 (2017).
Newbold, T. et al. Has land use pushed terrestrial biodiversity beyond the planetary boundary? A global assessment. Science 353, 288–291 (2016).
Ostberg, S., Schaphoff, S., Lucht, W. & Gerten, D. Three centuries of dual pressure from land use and climate change on the biosphere. Environ. Res. Lett. 10, 044011 (2015).
Fader, M., Rost, S., Müller, C., Bondeau, A. & Gerten, D. Virtual water content of temperate cereals and maize: present and potential future patterns. J. Hydrol. 384, 218–231 (2010).
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).
Biemans, H. et al. Impact of reservoirs on river discharge and irrigation water supply during the 20th century. Water Resour. Res. 47, W03509 (2011).
Flörke, M. et al. Domestic and industrial water uses of the past 60 years as a mirror of socio-economic development: a global simulation study. Global Environ. Change 23, 144–156 (2013).
de Vries, W., Kros, J., Kroeze, J. 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).
Velthof, G. L. & Mosquera, J. Calculation of Nitrous Oxide Emission from Agriculture in the Netherlands: Update of Emission Factors and Leaching Fraction Alterra Report 2251 (Alterra, 2011).
Bouwman, A. F. et al. Global trends and uncertainties in terrestrial denitrification and N2O emissions. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. 368, 20130112 (2013).
Lamarque, J.-F. et al. Multi-model mean nitrogen and sulfur deposition from the Atmospheric Chemistry and Climate Model Intercomparison Project (ACCMIP): evaluation of historical and projected future changes. Atmos. Chem. Phys. 13, 7997–8018 (2013).
Vitousek, P. M., Menge, D. N. L., Reed, S. C. & Cleveland, C. C. Biological nitrogen fixation: rates, patterns and ecological controls in terrestrial ecosystems. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. 368, 20130119 (2013).
Cleveland, C. C. et al. Global patterns of terrestrial biological nitrogen (N2) fixation in natural ecosystems. Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 13, 623–645 (1999).
Bodirsky, B. L. et al. N2O emissions of the global agricultural nitrogen cycle—current state and future scenarios. Biogeosciences 9, 4169–4197 (2012).
von Bloh, W. et al. Implementing the nitrogen cycle into the dynamic global vegetation, hydrology, and crop growth model LPJmL (version 5.0). Geosci. Model Dev. 11, 2789–2812 (2018).
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).
The World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA) (IUCN and UNEP-WCMC, accessed 20 October 2015); www.protectedplanet.net
Pimm, S. L. et al. The biodiversity of species and their rates of extinction, distribution, and protection. Science 344, e1246752 (2014).
Bodirsky, B. L. & Müller, C. Robust relationship between yields and nitrogen inputs indicates three ways to reduce nitrogen pollution. Environ. Res. Lett. 9, 105011 (2014).
Oldeman, L. R., Hakkeling, T. R. & Sombroek, W. G. GLASOD: World Map of Human-Induced Soil Degradation (International Soil Reference and Information Centre, 1991).
Lehner, B. & Döll, P. Development and validation of a global database of lakes, reservoirs and wetlands. J. Hydrol. 296, 1–22 (2004).
Smil, V. Nitrogen in crop production: an account of global flows. Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 13, 647–662 (1999).
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).
Zhang, X. et al. Managing nitrogen for sustainable development. Nature 528, 51–59 (2015).
Closing the Loop—An EU Action Plan for the Circular Economy (EC, 2015).
Diet, Nutrition and the Prevention of Chronic Diseases Technical Report Series 196 (WHO, 2003).
Kummu, M., Ward, P. J., de Moel, H. & Varis, O. Is physical water scarcity a new phenomenon? Global assessment of water shortage over the last two millennia. Environ. Res Lett. 5, 034006 (2010).
Gerten, D. et al. Model output for: “Feeding ten billion people is possible within four terrestrial planetary boundaries” (GFZ Data Services, 2020); https://doi.org/10.5880/PIK.2019.021/
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.
The authors declare no competing interests.
Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
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.
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.
About this article
Cite this article
Gerten, D., Heck, V., Jägermeyr, J. et al. Feeding ten billion people is possible within four terrestrial planetary boundaries. Nat Sustain 3, 200–208 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-019-0465-1
Nature Food (2021)
Combining Process Modelling and LAI Observations to Diagnose Winter Wheat Nitrogen Status and Forecast Yield
Global Food Security (2021)
The Journal of Agricultural Science (2021)
Avenues for improving farming sustainability assessment with upgraded tools, sustainability framing and indicators. A review
Agronomy for Sustainable Development (2021)