Is Food Production Our Biggest Sustainability Challenge?

Time for a new agricultural revolution!

While visiting New Zealand recently, an interview on the National Programme (Radio NZ) happened to catch my attention … the interviewee was claiming that food production deserves more of our attention and much more action than reducing carbon emissions if we are to create a sustainable future for ourselves and our planet. Was this an alternative view or a climate change denier?

The person being interviewed, Professor Johan Rockström (from Sweden), was recently awarded the 2017 Hillary Laureate. The Hillary Laureate is New Zealand’s equivalent of the Nobel prize – an annual prize for international leadership, in memory of Sir Edmund Hillary.

Recognised around the world for his work on global sustainability, Rockström led the team of 28 international scientists who identified and quantified the Planetary Boundaries framework in 2009. So, what is this concept of planetary boundaries and why should it matter to each of us?

You could listen Kim Hill’s 30 minute interview with Prof. Rockström – maybe download it for your daily commute. Or you could read the scientists’ latest research in SCIENCE describing how, in recent years, we have breached four of the nine planetary boundaries! Or you could read my synopsis of the interview below this blog.

In a nutshell, the planetary boundaries are a set of guard rails which define a “safe operating space” within which humanity can continue to develop and thrive for generations to come. Focusing on carbon reduction is not sufficient, climate change is only one of the nine planetary boundaries. While climate change is important, the scientists believe that we need transformation in other areas. In fact, the big change needs to be in FOOD – what we eat, the growing global food demand and how we meet it. Why is food production our biggest sustainability challenge? Because it negatively impacts all four of the planetary boundaries that have recently been crossed – and our demand for food continues to explode. Moreover, what we chose to eat also has a powerful impact on sustainability.

Can we return to a “safe operating space”? Rockström believes we can – but we need to act quickly and use methods that can be scaled. To meet the dual goals of increasing food production whilst reducing the environmental impact of agriculture, we will have stop deforestation, accelerate sustainable agricultural intensification, use existing land more effectively and appropriately, and harness innovation and new technology. In short, we need a revolution in agriculture and food production.

What can you do? Start, start today – making changes – in what you eat, what you drive, how your school or company acts. Begin small and keep doubling your actions. Be innovative. It’s a revolution we need, not evolution!

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SYNOPSIS OF RADIO INTERVIEW with Professor Johan Rockström

Planetary Boundaries

Science shows that there are nine processes and systems (see text box) which regulate the stability and resilience of the earth system – and that together provide conditions upon which human life and our society depends. Exceeding these quantitative boundaries, or environmental lines, we risk destabilising the entire system. By remaining within these boundaries we can maintain a “safe operating space for humanity”.

Rockström believes biodiversity can be considered the most important boundary, core to the survival of the planet as we know it, because it is the ultimate tool to build resilience. “Biodiversity is not about protecting species for some ethical or moral reasons – it is the fundamental fabric for stability.” There is also growing scientific recognition that biodiversity is the ultimate source of economic development – without biodiversity we don’t have a food system, a bioenergy system, or the ability to deliver fresh water and clean air.

4 boundaries have been breached
We have breached four planetary boundaries since the framework was first published in 2009 – carbon emissions, excess nitrogen and phosphate in waterways, loss of biodiversity and conversion of land for agriculture. We need to move very quickly from this risk zone and return these systems to safe operating levels in order to maintain the stability of the earth systems.

Food Production
These 4 boundaries are all involved/connected/fundamental to how we produce food. A big revolution is needed to alter that. Most of the international discourse and debate is on carbon emissions and fossil fuels however food production is the single largest cause behind the breaches of the planetary boundaries. According to Rockström, food production is “.. the single largest reason for loss of biodiversity, it’s the single largest reason for overuse of nitrogen and phosphorus, polluting waters and our coastal regions … so in all respects, food is the biggest single challenge we have.”
Food production is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, it is the leading reason for deforestation and the overuse of nitrogen and phosphate. Most dramatically, food production is the number one reason for the loss of biodiversity.

If we could get sustainable on food we have a good chance of a sustainable future – that’s both important and exciting because we already have many of the solutions. And sustainable food production will also mean a healthier future. We have already converted 50% of the land area on earth to different forms of agriculture and urban areas. Only 50% are left for natural ecosystems, for biodiversity and carbon sinks – this is the minimum we need. So firstly and quickly, we must stop the loss of natural ecosystems, the deforestation of land for agriculture, especially the rainforests in Indonesia, Congo and the Amazon.

Population Growth
50% more food will be required over the next generation. By 2050 it is predicted there will be around 9.5 billion people on the planet, 95% living in poor, developing countries. The population of Africa is expected to explode for 1 billion today to 3 billion by 2050. We urgently need an agricultural revolution – one based on sustainable intensification.

So why is population not one of the boundaries? For one reason, demographic change is slow – it requires cultural change. There is little chance, beyond global war or pandemic, that we can significantly reduce population growth below 9.5 billion by 2050, but we still need to invest in population control to manage the numbers beyond 2050!

What can we do? We can decarbonise the whole world by 2050!!!
Currently the planet buffers half our carbon emissions, the amount taken up in oceans and forests is truly remarkable.

We need to halve carbon emissions every decade to 2050 and double renewable energy every 5-7 years. We can do it – using Moore’s Law of exponential growth (well demonstrated in computing power). Halving emissions can be scaled – you can do it, I can do it, an economy or business can do it – more and more scientific evidence points to the fact that it can be done. We just need to pick up the pace – honour our personal commitments and keep businesses and governments to theirs.

Do you need some encouragement, some evidence that it’s possible? Well we are already doubling renewables every 5.4 years – if we keep doing this, we could be fossil fuel free by 2045!

Johan Rockström is the director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre and a professor of environmental science at Stockholm University.

In this TED talk from 2010 Johan Rockström introduces the Planetary Boundaries framework