Is Protein a Key to Feeding Ten Billion?
By 2050, humanity will have over two billion more people to feed than we do now.
That’s a daunting prospect when we already struggle to feed ourselves without damaging the planet. Agriculture already accounts for about one-quarter of greenhouse gas emissions, 70 percent of freshwater use, and half of vegetated land.
Simply putting more energy, water, and land into production will only push up the financial and environmental costs of food, making survival even harder for the world’s poorest people. To meet this challenge, we’ll need to find ways to get more out of the resources we already use.
- One-third of food that is produced globally is never eaten. [Tweet This]
- Agriculture accounts for 25% of greenhouse gas emissions, 70% of freshwater use, and half of vegetated land. [Tweet This]
- One third of all calories and half of all vegetable protein grown on farms worldwide feeds animals, not people. [Tweet This]
One way is to reduce food waste and loss, tapping the one-third of food that is produced but not eaten—a task taken up by the Foundation’s YieldWise initiative.
Another way to get more food out of the resources we put in is to change the way we produce and consume protein. Raising animals to produce meat and other products is inherently wasteful: As little as 1 percent of the calories and 4 percent of the protein from grains fed to livestock ends up on plates in the form of meat. As a result, one third of all calories and half of all vegetable protein grown on farms worldwide feeds animals, not people.
That’s a big problem, and one that is growing rapidly.
Demand for meat, eggs, and dairy is expected to rise by over 75 percent by 2050. Today, meat accounts for three quarters of land used for agriculture and two thirds of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture—more than the entire global transportation sector.
We can bridge this gap between growing demand and what the earth can sustainably supply—while still eating well. Here are some ways to think about sustainably meeting our protein needs:
- It’s about protein equity: People in high income countries already eat far more protein than we need, and more meat than is healthy. This pushes up the price of meat and other protein sources for everyone—including the hundreds of millions of poor people who eat less than they need. A sustainable future will likely mean that those of us who already have enough will eat less meat, helping the poor eat more.
- Shifting sources is easy: Getting more of our protein from vegetable sources is a good idea for both sustainability and health, and new products and campaigns are making that easier and more fun. Choosing different meats also helps: Beef requires 28 times as much land and produces at least five times more greenhouse gases than the equivalent amount of chicken.
- “Clean meat” could be the future: Cultured, lab-grown animal cells could allow meat, milk, eggs and leather to be grown without animals, drastically shrinking their environmental footprint. There are promising cellular agricultural products like milk, chicken and gelatin in development but there’s a long way to go before we see the full potential of these technologies.
- What our meat eats matters: Tweaks in the way animals are raised and fed can cut our environmental footprint of meat. Feeding animals food that would otherwise be wasted is one step. Adjusting feed mixes and growing high-protein feedstocks are others.
Acting on these ideas will be a big challenge—but they’re pointing us toward a future of diverse, delicious diets and exciting innovations in our food system. Along with reducing food waste and other measures, a better approach to protein will be a key part of how we feed nearly ten billion people without overwhelming our planet’s capacity to provide.