Threats to food supply and environment loom without significant changes: Report

PHOTO: Combines harvest wheat in a field owned by the Siberia farming company outside the village of Ogur in Krasnoyarsk Region, Russia Sept. 8, 2019.PlayIlya Naymushin/Reuters
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Half of the world’s population may be malnourished by 2030 if current trends go unchecked, according to a new report.

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The report, Growing Better: Ten Critical Transitions to Transform Food and Land Use, finds that without significant changes to the global agricultural industry, the world’s food supply, as well as the environment, are at risk.

Over $700 billion a year is spent globally on agricultural subsidies but we are not getting much value for the money spent, the report found.

The hidden costs of agriculture mean that for every dollar we spend on food, we pay more than an extra dollar on environmental, health and economic costs. That adds up to more than $12 trillion per year and will rise to $16 trillion by 2050 if we do not alter our approaches to food production and land usage.

“We are absolutely paying twice,” report co-author Per Pharo told ABC News. “We’re using public money to pay for something that’s not good for the public.”

If current trends continue that both harm the environment and contribute to inefficient land use, that could mean people will pay more for lower quality food and there could be an issue sufficiently feeding the world’s growing population.

PHOTO:Workers pick and put down elstar apples from Bert den Haans orchard in Kerk-Avezaath, Netherlands, Sept. 6, 2019. Sem Van Der Wal/AFP/Getty Images
PHOTO:Workers pick and put down elstar apples from Bert den Haan's orchard in Kerk-Avezaath, Netherlands, Sept. 6, 2019.

The world’s food supply largely relies on just five countries – the United States, Argentina, Brazil, China and India – for 60% of its calories. Additionally, much of the world’s food supply depends mostly on four crops – rice, wheat, potatoes and maize, a concentration that leaves the food supply vulnerable to risk. Diversity is the best protection against risks, according to Pharo.

"[The world has] 120 days of food reserves," Pharo says. "Which is not even enough to cover the time difference between North and South harvest seasons."

Another issue: Food and land use systems are currently responsible for up to 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the report. The emissions from the agricultural system alone will heat the environment beyond the level that scientists have warned about, Pharo said.

Ignoring these issues would be like “sleepwalking into a scenario wherein climate change, sea-level rise and extreme-weather events increasingly threaten human life, biodiversity and natural resources are depleted, people increasingly suffer life-threatening, diet-induced diseases, food security is compromised, and…development is seriously impaired,” state the report’s authors.

“Current practices typically fail to price in the hidden costs of climate-related financial, social and environmental risk,” says the report. “A big chunk of money is not deployed in helping the problem,” added Pharo. “You can repurpose that money.”

But the report also finds that change is possible and can increase economic activity.

The report outlines ways in which money can be better spent to reforest land, and promote biodiversity, and how land can be used more efficiently at local levels to produce a greater diversity of food crops.

Diversifying crops would mean a change in diet for many people in the developed world. To remain sustainable, the world will have to look to more diverse sources of protein and sharply reduce meat consumption. Experts say these changes will lead to healthier, more varied diets.

Changes needed to protect the planet, and the food supply can create vast economic opportunities – standing to create $4.5 trillion in new business opportunities each year by 2030, according to the Food and Land Use Coalition.

PHOTO: An aerial view of a burned tract of Amazon jungle as it was cleared by loggers and farmers near Porto Velho, Brazil, Aug. 29, 2019. Ricardo Moraes/Reuters, FILE
An aerial view of a burned tract of Amazon jungle as it was cleared by loggers and farmers near Porto Velho, Brazil, Aug. 29, 2019.

“This is the closest to a win-win we will get, reaping huge social, economic and environmental benefits,” said Jeremy Oppenheim, principal of the coalition and the report's co-lead author. “This report proves for the first time that it is possible, indeed economically attractive, to feed 9 billion people with nutritious diets within planetary boundaries and to do so in a way that is good for rural communities.”

The report provides examples of how countries have already changed their economic incentives and had positive impacts. Costa Rica, for instance, has reversed deforestation, the first tropical country to have done so, through a combination of reduced cattle subsidies and financial incentives.

Today, more than half of Costa Rica’s land area is forest, compared to a quarter in 1983. In the European Union, the report says, subsidy reform led to a 27% reduction in nitrogen oxide emissions from fertilizer and an increase in yields by 28%.

“There is no system level trade-off between food production and environmental protection,” said Pharo. According to the report, regenerative farming alone could reap benefits of $1.2 trillion per year by 2030.

The report was launched to coincide with the United Nations Climate Action Summit which will be held in New York beginning Sept. 23.