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How can we feed all the people in the world?

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Charlotte Hawkins

The global challenges we face of how to feed a growing population has become a hot topic over the past few years. Our world population has grown from 2 billion people a century ago to 7.7 billion now, and is expected to reach 10 billion by 2060. It is now clear that something has to be done to tackle these challenges as our current way of producing food is destroying our planet.

As more people have become aware of this dilemma, some have decided to opt for more sustainable food choices, and one of the ways this is done is by eliminating animal products from the diet. Veganism has become more common throughout Europe in recent years. While respect must be given to those who choose a vegan diet for ethical and environmental reasons, a totally vegan diet cannot naturally meet our nutritional needs without supplementation. Also, while it may be an ideal that some people would aspire to, it is unrealistic to expect that the whole world would be prepared to adopt a vegan diet.

Although meat consumption is reducing slightly in Europe, the amount of meat eaten in the developing world has risen exponentially. This is due in part to the increasing affluence of developing countries with large populations (in particular, China and Brazil), but is due also to the monetary cost of meat production becoming ever cheaper as large-scale factory farming is completely eradicating smaller-scale local meat production. The current enormous "CAFO" (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) that started in the USA and are now ubiquitous worldwide come at a huge cost to the environment, the welfare of the animals and also the nutritional quality of the meat.

In an ideal world, farm animals would all be grazed – not only is it kinder to the animals and produces more nutritious meat but it is also better from an environmental perspective:  smaller-scale production is substantially less taxing on the local ecosystem and less methane produced when animals eat their natural diet. Animals reared this way turn something we can't eat – grass – into a food product that we can – meat or dairy products. Realistically though, there is nowhere near sufficient grazing land in the world to support anything like our current level of meat consumption.

So what is the solution? The two main angles from which the problem needs to be approached are our reliance on animal protein, and also food waste.

Animal protein

  • There needs to be a cultural shift away from relying on animal-sourced protein. This not only means turning to vegan options which are relatively high in protein such as nuts and pulses, but also when meat is consumed, treating it more like a condiment rather than the central part of a meal.
  • We need to eat animals and animal products lower down on the food chain. For example, eggs are a first-class source of animal protein, but are much less environmentally taxing to produce than red meat.
  • We need to practise nose-to-tail eating. This means using all parts of the animal, especially offal (which is highly nutritious), rather than just muscle meat.
  • Fish need to be caught from sustainable fisheries where stocks have sufficient time to recover and we need to favour consumption of smaller, short-lived species of fish over larger, long-lived species. Fish farming also has to be done in a way that does not impact on local aquatic life.
  • We need to look at alternative sources of animal protein that are not currently consumed throughout most of the world, but are nutritious and environmentally sustainable to produce, for example crickets and other insects which are high in protein and also essential fats.
  • Our production of meat needs to be done in a way which is less taxing on the local ecosystem by returning to smaller-scale more natural forms of livestock rearing.
  • Although it raises ethical issues, we have to consider whether laboratory-grown meat could be an environmentally sustainable way of meeting the current demand, and whether it is a viable nutritional alternative. As a society we must not shy away from the debate.

Food waste

  • Shockingly, around a third of the food the world produces is wasted. This waste starts at the source of production, where fruits and vegetables in particular are ploughed back into the soil as they do not meet the exacting standards of supermarkets.  Supermarkets have begun to sell cosmetically imperfect produce, and although many consumers favour less-than-perfect fruits and vegetables, this only makes a small dent in the amount that is currently thrown away.
  • Food is also wasted as it goes unsold in supermarkets and has to be discarded. While food safety is an obvious concern, and use-by dates are important for foods that could cause food poisoning if consumed after a certain period of time, much is discarded due to "best before" dates, rather than "use by" dates. "Best before" dates are only an indication of possible food quality rather than food safety, and in reality many foods are absolutely fine to eat well beyond the "best before" date, but are unnecessarily thrown away. "Best before" dates can be phased out as most people are capable of applying simple common sense: if it looks fine to eat and isn't something that can give you food poisoning, then it will be fine to eat.
  • The biggest source of food waste is in the domestic kitchen. Supermarket incentives encourage shoppers to buy more than they need, and the culture of people doing one big weekly shop means many items are bought "just in case" and fresh items are unlikely to still be at their best at the end of the week and are then discarded. For example, half of all bagged salads that are bought are thrown away. Sensible food storage which maximises the life of produce only takes a little time and forethought (for example, lettuce can keep for several days longer if it is wrapped in kitchen roll and kept in a sealed plastic bag, both of which can be reused). We need a change of culture in terms of the acceptability of throwing food away, and also in our shopping and food storage habits.
  • The catering industry also throws away vast amounts of food. There are three main sources of waste by the catering industry: Food that has been semi-prepared and then not chosen by customers from a menu, food that has been left out (for example, in a buffet) and has to be discarded after a two hour period, and food that has been left on customers' plates. For the first scenario, food waste could be substantially reduced by restaurants offering a more limited menu. In the second scenario, food could be put out in smaller quantities so it can be stored in kitchens where temperatures enable a longer shelf-life, and in the final scenario, restaurants can serve normal domestic-size portions. As portions have got increasingly bigger in recent years, not only have our waistlines increased, but food waste has also increased along with it.
  • Inevitably there will always be some food waste, although the amount can and must be substantially reduced. However, what we do with that food waste is also hugely important. At the moment most of it goes into landfill sites where it releases methane gasses as it decomposes. Although some councils offer a food waste collection service where it is industrially composted, all councils should offer this, and composting of food waste can also be done at home. Food waste that is collected and disposed of by local councils is a rich source of natural energy and can be used to produce bio-fuels, which would not only avoid the problem of food going to landfill sites, but would reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.

How are we to achieve the necessary goals of reducing meat consumption and also cutting food waste? Unfortunately, while cultural attitudes towards the problem of our global food supply are slowly shifting, it is not fast enough and is generally amongst very small subcultures – largely the affluent middle classes – within the world population. Change needs to be brought about on world-wide governmental level to truly tackle the problem.

While there needs to be a global education campaign to highlight the issues concerning our current methods of food production to encourage the shift in cultural values, experience has shown that financial approaches are usually far more effective at forcing change in populations where people are reluctant to do so. We need to consider how we tax both food and food waste. Unsustainable meat production could be levied and the funds raised could be reallocated to subsidise environmentally sustainable food production. Governments should be penalised for not collecting food waste and producing biofuels from it, both on a local and centralised level. Unpopular as it would initially be, taxes could also be levied on food that is wasted in domestic households and the food catering industry to force a more innovative and sustainable approach.

Although these ideas may seem draconian, it is clear the softly-softly approach isn't working – or at least, isn't working fast enough. However, the very existence of organisations such as True Food show that large numbers of people do care enough to step away from the food habits of the majority. Shoppers come to True Food because all the food is produced in the most sustainable way possible and vegan foods are abundant for those who have reduced or eliminated their consumption of meat and animal products. Food waste is also tackled seriously, and fresh produce that is past its best is sold at a heavy discount in the rootle box, as are products that are approaching their "best before" dates. While we wait for the necessary changes that need to come on a global scale, we can all do our bit by spreading the word and continuing to support True Food and its goals.