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Tackling Ecological Overshoot: The food system’s 10 “impossible imperatives”

Global Footprint Network and its partners characterize the food dilemma through a set of ten tough challenges we call the “impossible imperatives.”

  1. The imperative to use no more fossil fuels. The food system, and particularly farms, will have to produce all the food while rapidly phasing out fossil fuels or its derivatives, from farm to fork. Humanity, if it wants to comply with the Paris Agreement and avoid the worst of climate change, will have to get out of fossil fuel use well before 2050. Even if humanity does not want to, eventually it will be forced to quit the habit, and will face even more unpredictable climate extremes if it acts slowly. The global food system is incredibly fossil fuel dependent, with each food calorie requiring several fossil fuel calories to be produced. Currently, fossil fuel is a cheap and convenient enabler of the food system, with all its downfalls: depleting farm practices starting with excessive fertilizer use, ability to pumping massive amount of irrigation water, and operating intricate machines. Also, many fossil fuel derivates, such as plastics, are used widely from field to fork. This imperative is challenged even more by the need to part ways with fossil fuels without losing yield.
  2. The imperative to increase food production and reduce food waste. There is an increasing demand for food from a growing urban population. The demand is getting amplified by shifting diets: many people seem to want ever more protein in their diet, especially animal-based protein – even though they may not have a protein shortage in their diet. Typically, protein calories take far more biocapacity than general food calories (such as starches), even if the protein is from plants rather than animals. Some of the increased food demand can be provided by cutting food loss and waste. Currently, approximately one third of food produced is wasted. But the increase in demand may be so high that there will be a need for higher yields. Growing demand is also driven by growing populations. Some may argue though that such population increases may not need to occur. But surprisingly, there is little consensus among political leaders that smaller populations would be of benefit to each region, country, or even humanity as a whole. As a result, the demographic transition may not accelerate (Explore your demographic assumptions using our downloadable scenario calculator). Therefore, higher demand is likely.
  3. The imperative to contribute to food equity. Food for all is of paramount importance, given the largely uneven distribution of economic possibilities. Even though high-income areas are generally well supplied with food and struggle more with avoiding obesity among their populations, rather than food scarcity, starvation is still a real threat in many parts of the world. An estimated 3 billion people do not have access to a healthy diet, according to FAO; and diet-related non-communicable diseases are on the rise and cause disability and mortality. Given climate change, growing demand, and the need to move out of fossil fuel, the food security situation could get tighter again. Today, 72% of humanity lives in countries that run an ecological deficit and live on an income smaller than the average global income per person. This means 72% of the world population will be at a particularly brutal disadvantage competing in international markets for food once ecological deficit spending will become less of an option.
  4. The imperative to avoid degradation and pollution. Farms will have to operate in ways that do not erode or contaminate their soils and waterways, now and in the future. Given our fragile planet, humanity can no longer afford to degrade or lose soil, overexploit and deplete surface and groundwater, assault biodiversity, or apply substances emitting persistent pollutants. There may even be calls for farms to become a regenerative, agroecological, or even restorative.
  5. The imperative to become more resource efficient beyond fossil fuel elimination. It is not just fossil fuel input that will become ever less available. It is no longer reasonable to count on being able to access more water, particularly groundwater, more wood for structures and fences, more cotton for shading or packaging, etc.
  6. The imperative to provide greenhouse gas (GHG) sinks. To live up to IPCC scenarios, agricultural land must become a sink of GHG, not a source as it is now. This means that farms will have to change practices that emit additional greenhouse gases, particularly methane. Such GHGs may come from land conversions, cattle, or rice paddies. Since IPCC scenarios all bank on quite massive net sequestration in the second half of the 21st century, just eliminating GHGs from agricultural production may not be sufficient. While there are some promising examples of how this can be achieved, nobody knows yet how to do this at scale without diminishing food production.
  7. The imperative to prepare the food system for significant climate shifts. Because we can no longer expect and depend on the usual, regular weather patterns, the food system must become climate resilient. Extremes will be more common, overlaid, most likely, with an overarching warming trend (at least as a global average). The average climate may be heating up more, or less, in your own region, with increased seasonal variance. This may affect the evapotranspiration conditions of what you grow. Therefore, it may require significant adaptation efforts, possibly growing different kinds of crops, and adjusting the contours of your territories to cope with changing water availability. Climate change mitigation will also be needed, with urban food systems playing a key role as almost 70% of global population will live in cities by 2050.
  8. The imperative to navigate the inevitable technological shifts. Significant technological shifts are increasingly likely, and probably escape attempts to regulate those technologies’ use. Whether AI (artificial intelligence) is taking over farm management, robots are working the fields, or supply chains are automated, many such changes are coming, with both challenges (such as social inequity and ecological impacts) and opportunities. As a consequence, the food system professionals will have to learn new things rapidly, not yet taught at schools, and some of those professionals might get displaced. Society may be able to delay adoption of such technologies, but delays may also risk losing out on productivity gains. Science and technology will need to back up local traditional knowledge.
  9. The imperative to succeed even in the absence of financial upsides. Tragically, in spite of massive ecological overshoot, the stewards of biological capital are rewarded poorly. For instance, low-income countries with high share in agriculture do not seem to benefit financially from their access to higher levels of biocapacity (see Figure 6 in “Defying the Footprint Oracle”). One reason is that the benefits from value chains, all of which depend on biocapacity, are not distributed back to the stewards of the natural capital. Most benefit of the value chain goes to the brands and urban distributors. Even if farm production increases, this does not seem to boost farm income as larger production can decrease prices. Urban markets do not value the food system sufficiently, particularly those at the foundation of the value chains.
  10. The imperative to address them all in absence of societal support. All these imperatives are hitting the food system at once. It is not about picking and choosing from the 9 problems mentioned above. To succeed, humanity needs to address all of them simultaneously, and not any at the cost of any other one. Otherwise, humanity will not be able to solve its food problem. And yet, these massive challenges are not yet recognized as a societal priority. Hence Global Footprint Network and its partners’ focus to explore the implications of these challenges and contribute to identifying pathways.

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