Goals of a Sustainable Food System

What to eat in 2030 or 2050 to be within environmental limits.

October 26, 2018

Goals of a Sustainable Food System image

What are the goals that we need to set and reach in order go keep our food system within environmental limits?

This question has come up multiple times: as people ask me on the podium, as cities draft their sustainability goals, as people try to understand the sustainable development goals of the united nations, as grass-roots initiative try to do the right thing.

A lot of people I meet are into sustainability. We do all want to do the right thing. But nevertheless it continuously sparks the discussion about what to focus on: what to do first and how bold our actions should be.

In the media, we are informed about the trade-offs of avocados. How bad plastic straws are. What is the problem of palmoil, GMOs and how bad the situation still is with fair-trade chocolate. In the end, is it all about eating local, seasonal, and organic, recycling our garbage, and reducing foodwaste?

No it is not. Most definitely not.

To understand, we have to dive a little bit into the concept that lets us understand what the biggest problem is, the one we are actually trying to solve. From a scientific perspective, there are a multitude of issues that are connected with our food system and that are contributing to the overshot our biosphere’s boundaries. They include the climate crisis, the nitrogen and phosphorus cycle, ocean acidification, freshwater use, land use change. The climate crisis looms most prominently is on the horizon, as its displacements and destruction will be worse than in all wars in human history combined.

We might be able to solve a couple of those issues with technology (for example, the water crisis can be solved by building water purification plants). Yet the biggest issue of them all, and at the core of most of the environmental problems, is our excessively huge meat and milk consumption. 1.6 billion cows are at the centre of the destruction of our ecosystem and climate.

A fairly recent study (published in Nature by Springman et al. - also check the article on the guardian) brings it to the point. We have the options of improving technology, reducing foodwaste, and transitioning our diet – but only the combination of all three will cut it. The scenario, in its simplest terms, he describes as follows:

By 2050 we need to change our diet to the following fractions of our current consumption:

1/10 of red meats
⅓ of white meats and milk
5 times the amount of legumes, nuts, and seeds
Twice the amount of vegetables
while reducing foodwaste by ⅓

Or, if we want to set a more proximate target for 2030, we suggest:

⅓ of red meats (-66%)
4/5 of white meats and milk (-20%)
2 times the the amount of legumes, nuts and seeds (+100%)
1.5 times the amount of vegetable (+50%)
while reducing foodwaste to 4/5 (-20%)

To make it really plain and simple: There is no way we can talk about eating sustainable without reducing our meat consumption. China is doing it. The vegetarians are doing it. The IPCC recommends it. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Leonardo di Caprio promote it. The Netherlands and the islands that will disappear in the oceans are hoping that you will get it.

Better too soon than too late.