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Fixing our food system as a cure for our planet

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The world population by 2050 will have surged to over 9 billion people. How to feed ourselves in a healthy way for both people and planet? How do we ensure we provide for healthy diets within planetary boundaries, with proteins playing a key role? WBCSD's Science Director Alain Vidal shines a light on the pathways for collective actions on and beyond proteins with innovation solution spaces for business to help bending the curves of greenhouse gas emissions and impact on biodiversity.

Ivo Lansbergen, DSM President Animal Nutrition & Health: ‘Proteins are an essential part of a healthy diets. Recent retail meat purchase has surged during COVID-19 lockdowns showing the importance of animal proteins – like dairy, eggs and fish. At the same time, consumers prefer these to be produced in the most sustainable way. The private sector is well-equipped to provide for the growing demand for sustainable animal proteins. As DSM we are pleased and proud to make this a reality working together with our partners. The pathways are known, now let’s make it happen’ – Ivo Lansbergen 

A safe operating space to thrive

At WBCSD, our vision is a world where by 2050 over 9 billion people are all living well and within planetary boundariesa concept developed by Johan Rockström in 2009. Among my scientific readings of this year so far, one publication acted as an eye-opener: ‘Human impacts on planetary boundaries amplified by Earth system interactionsby Steven Lade and his colleagues. Their paper explored the interactions between the different Earth systems at play within the planetary boundaries.

For those familiar with planetary boundaries, you’ll recall that they define a ‘safe operating space’ where our civilizations have flourished and thrived for the past 10,000 years without harming the Earth natural systems (a geological period called Holocene). If you need a refresh and a clear explanation, watch the TED of Johan Rockstrom3. Today, the melting of Greenland and Antarctic ice shelves or the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef raise the question of the edges of the "safe operating space", a "zone of uncertainty". Entering this zone, Earth systems would start changing dramatically, and systems would pass a tipping point where some changes could be irreversible4.

We know that each Earth system interacts with one another. For instance, changes in land systems, for which the boundary has entered into the “zone of uncertainty”, have a major impact on climate, biodiversity, soil fertility, and biochemical cycles. These last cycles also have a strong impact on biodiversity; and losses in biodiversity weaken the productivity of land systems, which further yield in land system changes. These interactions nurture the loop cycles damaging Earth systems.  To navigate closer to a safe operating space, the focus should not be on solutions to only mitigate GHG emissions. In fact, these would only bring us further away from a “safe operating space”. On the contrary, aiming for a more sustainable food system would better help us reach firm ground. 

Proteins Pathways with business solution spaces

“Fixing our food system” has been the mission of the WBCSD FReSH project since its launch in 2017. Amongst the debates we have had over the years with our members and partners, proteins have been at the heart of the debate. This is firstly because proteins are the food element that impacts the environment most per calorie of food produced. It is also because any discussion on proteins between business, scientists and civil society, tends to end up with entrenched positions. With on the one hand those for whom the transition called upon by groups such as EAT, moving from animal to plant-based proteins, is felt as a threat to livestock farmers, meat-eaters and subsequently their business; and on the other hand those who see a massive opportunity to develop a new business around plant-based or other (e.g. insects, algae) novel proteins.  

“Science and business must work closely together as partners on our environmental challenges”5. Hence, the FReSH project partnered with science partners (EAT and SDSN/FABLE) and combined their modelling with quantified industry insights to develop a new WBCSD Protein Pathways whitepaper (2020)6 launched at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos in January 2020 to guide and support the necessary transformation of the protein sector.  

The Protein Pathways white paper identifies the most promising solution spaces for the proteins sector, and beyond, for the entire food system. These would significantly help reduce GHG emissions as well as nature degradation. And even, go further than today’s commonly agreed 2030 “apex targets” (Science-based targets) for climate and nature protection.  

The next figures show the potential impact of those business solution spaces, with potential to1 reduce agricultural GHG emissions from 8.8 GtCO2e (our BAU estimate was based on projections from  IPCC7 and FAO8 that range from 7.2 to 11 GtCO2e) down to 1.6 GtCO2e by 2030; and by 2030; and2 increase the land area that could support biodiversity conservation by more than 20% by 2030. 

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Table from the WBCSD Protein Pathways Report (2020) Most significant solution spaces for business and their potential for reducing the sector’s GHG emissions and increasing the land area that could support biodiversity conservation.

What's next?

WBCSD’s Food & Nature program area, through its FReSH other projects, is now using the impact assessment of the above business spaces to prioritize collective action with our members, on and beyond proteins. DSM is playing an active role in this program.

Have you noticed that you’ve made it to the end of this piece without reading the word “COVID-19”? Here it comes: the ongoing pandemic is a strong and dramatic evidence that we have definitely stepped beyond the “zone of uncertainty” described above, that goes beyond several tipping points and has never been experienced by humans for the past 10,000 years. And it’s striking to note that, already four years ago, UNEP Frontiers (2016) report warned that 51% of the emerging diseases in the past 75 years were related to land use, food and agriculture industries changes, and that the risk of losing the nature buffer zone between pathogens reservoirs and humans most often is caused by deforestation for agriculture and urban sprawling.  

Hence fixing our food system may be “the most effective” cure for our planet and prevention for future global disruptions.

This article is a shorter version of the earlier published article at the WBCSD website by Alain Vidal. For the full version see here. 

Sources & further reads:

  1. Stockholm resilience center, concept of planetary boundaries
  2. Steve et all (2019) “Human impacts on planetary boundaries amplified by Earth system interactions” 
  3. Johan Rockstrom TED Ex: the environment guide to development
  4. Potsdam Institute (2019)- Climate tipping
  5. Alain Vidal (2019), ‘What science means for business’.
  6. WBCSD (2020), WBCSD Protein Pathways Report
  7. IPCC (2019), Agriculture, food and land use
  8. FAO (2019), Agriculture, forestry and other land use
Fixing our food system as a cure for our planet