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New report released on planetary boundaries and dietary choice

6th Nov 2018

Unless you have been down a hole for the last couple of weeks (like I have), then you can’t have failed to have been exposed in some way or another to the recent paper published in Nature which explores our options for keeping our food system within planetary limits.

This study, which was funded by EAT, as part of the EAT –Lancet Commission for Food, Planet and Health, and by Wellcome’s “Our Planet, Our Health” partnership was led by Dr Marco Springmann of the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food and the Nuffield Department of Population Health at the University of Oxford. Heralded as the most comprehensive study to date of the environmental impacts of different food types, as well as modelling future consumption and population trends to forecast resource use and climate threat.

The paper sets out to undertake a big challenge – “to be the first to quantify how food production and consumption affects the planetary boundaries that describe a safe operating space for humanity beyond which Earth’s vital systems could become unstable.” (Oxford Martin School, Future of Food).

Some key headlines from the paper were:

  1. Climate change cannot be sufficiently mitigated without dietary changes towards more plant based diets. Indeed if a more ‘flexitarian’ diet was adopted globally, then we could reduce the greenhouse gas emission of the food system by more than half as well as other environmental impacts from agriculture (including fertiliser application, and freshwater use).
  2. As well as changing diets, improving management practices and technologies in agriculture is required to limit pressures on agricultural land, freshwater extraction and fertiliser use. If we can increase yields from existing cropland, balance nutrient supply, and improve water management this could, along with other measures reduce impacts by half.
  3. Food waste and food loss is the crucial third aspect. The paper modelled that we need to halve food waste to keep the system within environmental limits.

The point around diets and dietary choice has had a lot of media attention. The key missing point within the paper (which the authors themselves admit to not including) is the carbon that is being sequestered within the soils as a component of the model. We cannot get away from the fact that as humans, we cannot eat grass, and the production of high quality ruminant products which are fed on resources that we cannot consume ourselves is a key part of the puzzle (its not the cow, it’s the how). The benefits that these farming systems have not just in terms of food production (although this is a key attribute), but in terms of environmental preservation and utilisation, and the maintenance of our rural landscape and vitality is crucial.  There needs to be a concerted effort in understanding how carbon sequestration fits into the models that are used, where the opportunities are for holding more carbon and how we should protect (or enhance) it, as with all these issues, the solution is detailed and nuanced.

There is no doubt that we need to be eating (and wasting) less. However the environments that ruminants are produced in need to be preserved and enhanced to make sure that we can make the most of the benefits. We also need to be doing more research into measuring the benefits of carbon sequestration, understand the temporal and spatial variability of the levels of sequestration, and the impact of management practices on the carbon (something that we are starting here at FCCT).

We all need to work together, with researchers, policy makers, regulators, supply chains, and modellers to understand WHAT we are measuring, HOW we are measuring it and make sure that everyone is engaging in it.

It would be great if this paper resulted in more interest from the research and technology industries to come and work in the agricultural sector. As mentioned in the second point above, there is huge scope to improve management practices and technologies within agriculture, which will not just help with resource use efficiency and improved use of inputs, but technology can be used to help us understand things like never before. However the crucial aspect of this is partnership – we need researchers and farmers to work together so that the end products are practical and fit the need.

As well as improving research we need supportive policies that are based on sound science and robust ways of monitoring the impact, as well as opportunities to learn from best practice globally. With the advent of IT and the sheer volume of information that can be shared through social media / across continents, there is no reason why we can’t all benefit from shared experiences and common goals.

The time has come to take our heads from the sands and start to work together on tackling the issue of the environmental impact of agriculture.  Yes it’s complicated and multifaceted, but that should not mean that we don’t engage. There are numerous opportunities for us all to improve efficiencies within our business, the FCCT Calculator and Toolkit can help you, by improving nutrient use efficiency, making sure soils are managed in a way which is regenerative, and by reducing waste. We need to start talking about these issues together, so that we can agree on what the big challenges are that we throw back to the researchers to work on, and how we are going to measure the impact of what we are doing across supply chains, as well as inspiring the next generation to want to be a part of it too.

No small feat, but one which needs to happen.