26.07.2018 |

We can feed 9.7 billion by growing crops for humans, not animals

Feed maize to people instead of animals, study says (Photos: CC0)

The current crop production is sufficient to feed the predicted 9.7 billion world population in 2050, but only if we make radical changes to our dietary choices, new research shows. The scientists from Lancaster University stress the need for fundamental changes to human diets, replacing most meat and dairy with plant-based alternatives, and a greater willingness to eat crops such as maize which are currently fed to animals. For the study, published in the journal “Elementa, Science of the Anthropocene”, the researchers combined data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) with food nutrient data, and information on animal grazing and human nutritional needs. In the abstract of the study, they write that “the current production of crops is sufficient to provide enough food for the projected global population of 9.7 billion in 2050, although very significant changes to the socio-economic conditions of many (ensuring access to the global food supply) and radical changes to the dietary choices of most (replacing most meat and dairy with plant-based alternatives, and greater acceptance of human-edible crops currently fed to animals, especially maize, as directly-consumed human food) would be required.”

The scientists looked at calories and calculated what the effect would be if society in 2050 did not reduce waste and maintained per capita non-food uses at current levels while increasing meat, dairy and fish consumption in line with FAO projections to 730 kilocalories per person a day. “If society continues on a ‘business-as-usual’ dietary trajectory, a 119% increase in edible crops grown will be required by 2050”, said Professor Nick Hewitt, of the Lancaster Environment Centre. The researchers admit that meat and dairy, particularly if produced from grass, pasture and stover, may be of dietary importance to people who do not have access to diverse food types. However, they conclude that “Overall, industrialised meat and dairy production, which currently relies on feeding 34% of human-edible crop calories to animals globally, is highly inefficient in terms of the provision of human nutrition, since it reduces the energy, protein, iron and zinc supplies potentially available to humans from crops, and is incompatible with a sustainable global food system as currently conceived.” Professor Hewitt said their analysis “finds no nutritional case for feeding human-edible crops to animals, which reduces calorie and protein supplies.”

With regard to food waste, the study shows that reducing waste and excess consumption is also important, but quantitatively less significant. “The case for reducing food wastage, at all stages of the supply chain, and for reducing excess consumption above that required for healthy living, is self-evident. However, we show that, in the absence of increases in yield, both are quantitatively less important than reducing the amount of human-edible crops fed to animals,” the authors write. The analysis also shows that there is little scope for biofuel production. “Currently, 16% of crops available for eating are diverted to non-food uses, mainly biofuel. Increasing market pressures for biofuels could further stress the global food system,” said Professor Mike Berners-Lee, of Lancaster University’s Institute for Social Futures. He added that “there is currently widespread emphasis on increasing crop yields and reducing waste as the main mechanisms for ensuring global food security.” However, he stressed that the potential nutritional benefits of increased crop yields would be entirely lost if the additional crop production was diverted to biofuels and largely lost to feeding animals.

The authors highlight that the global food system has major impacts on the environment, through greenhouse gas emissions, water abstraction, soil, water and air pollution, land use change and loss of biodiversity, threatening food security and sustainability. “The challenge of sustainably producing sufficient food for the growing global population will not be solved by increases in production because there is a limit to the potential for efficiency gains, and many of these come with greater environmental costs, while increasing agricultural area by land use change almost invariably leads to losses of biodiversity,” they write. “Achieving global food security while reducing negative environmental impacts is one of the greatest challenges facing humanity,” said Professor Berners-Lee. But we can achieve this if we make radical changes to our dietary choices. (ab)

Back to news list


Donors of globalagriculture Bread for all biovision Bread for the World Misereor Heidehof Stiftung Hilfswerk der Evangelischen Kirchen Schweiz Rapunzel
English versionDeutsche VersionDeutsche Version