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Eating More of What We Grow

Alex Martinez — Former Program Associate

Although food production worldwide has increased dramatically over the past 50 years, today, some 2 billion people still suffer from hunger, micronutrient deficiencies, and increasingly, obesity. According to the World Health Organization, diet quality is now the number-one contributing factor to death and disability worldwide. Frankly, our food system is failing to nourish everyone. At the same time, agriculture is responsible for the bulk of humanity’s impact on the planet, and ironically, overuse of land and water to grow food today are the biggest threat to our ability to grow food tomorrow.

While political and economic forces ultimately drive hunger, malnutrition, and environmental degradation, the makeup of our food system intensifies these challenges. Something needs to change. To determine what, it’s worth taking a look at our food system to see how much of what we grow actually feeds people. This is a surprisingly tough metric to measure exactly, and an area of research that merits much greater attention. Even so, the general trend is clear: we don’t eat most of the food we grow.

By our best available estimates, of all the crop calories grown globally, 36% are used for animal feed. Now, clearly, some of those crop calories fed to animals are ultimately consumed by people in the form of eggs, dairy, and animal meat. That said, only about 12% of the crop calories used for feed ultimately contribute to the human diet. Of the remaining global crop mix, an additional 9% is used to produce biofuels and for other industrial uses. That leaves 55% for people – barely half of all the crops we grow. And that number doesn’t even account for loss and waste. Globally, a full one-third of all food produced goes uneaten. When accounting for waste, we consume less than half of all the crop calories we grow.

When you look at the numbers, you find our “food system”  produces a surprising amount of animal feed, waste, and fuel.

So what’s the solution? How do we nourish a growing population with dignity and equity without breaking the back of the planet? Eating more of what we grow seems like a reasonable place to start.

Since 2016, The Rockefeller Foundation’s YieldWise program has focused on helping farmers access technologies to curb preventable crop loss and engaging global businesses in accounting for food loss and waste. We have also collaborated with cities, the private sector and food rescue organizations to reduce food waste across the hospitality industry in the United States and ramp up efforts to rescue more food in Nashville, Denver, and New York City.

Reducing waste is just one part of the solution. Some estimates predict global meat consumption will rise dramatically by 2050 as populations and incomes grow and consumer preferences shift towards meat. Meat production is responsible for the bulk of agriculture’s impacts on the planet. Globally, livestock production already accounts for three-quarters of agricultural land use, two-thirds of agriculture’s carbon footprint, and one-third of water use—while contributing only 37% of total protein consumption. Unless production practices change, that means much more land dedicated to growing crops for animal feed.

To start, we need to take a hard look at how to use our existing protein sources – everything from lentils to farmed fish – to meet projected demand for animal products. To do this, we are working with experts at World Wildlife Fund and academics from universities around the world to conduct a comparative analysis of different protein production systems.

In a world where 36% of our food goes to animal feed, accelerating innovations in animal feed will be critical. New animal feeds sourced from insects, single-cell proteins, and algae promise to provide nutritious sources of feed for fish, chicken, and other food animals, while requiring far less land, water, and energy to produce. To help raise awareness of these alternative feeds and accelerate research and development, The Rockefeller Foundation is supporting Forum for the Future’s Protein Challenge 2040 coalition to develop the Feed Compass. The Feed Compass is a tool that will allow the food industry to compare different types of feed on criteria such as freshwater consumption, animal health and nutrition, and human rights and welfare.

Reshaping the current food system from one that produces more feed, waste, and fuel than food to one that nourishes the world is daunting. But it’s hard to imagine how we will meet many of our shared human health and environmental goals without taking it on. We hope you join us.

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