Let sustainable agriculture profit

The solution lays at the farm

Alone on Mars, marooned astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon, The Martian) realises he’s going to have to grow his own food – on a planet where nothing grows. He soon reaches the only possible conclusion: “In the face of overwhelming odds, I'm left with only one option: I’m going to have to science the shit out of this.” 

Back on planet Earth humanity has a similar problem: how to nutritiously feed a rapidly growing population within planetary boundaries. We too are going to have to science the shit out of it.

Over the next 30 years, our planet’s population is expected to grow by nearly a third, climbing to almost ten billion. And as the middle class expands, so inevitably does the appetite for proteins in the forms of meat, eggs, fish and plants. 

Animal proteins offer humans important nutrients. Today, over 800 million people – particularly in parts of Africa and Southern Asia – lack enough of these proteins, which has severe consequences on health including stunting a child’s growth. Importantly, even relatively small amounts of animal protein – such as an egg or two a day – can have a significant positive impact on health and help tackle malnutrition. 

The problem is that sustainably raising enough animals to feed ten billion people is not going to work with the current approach. Already, animals graze on a quarter of all land, eat 30% of the world’s crops, and account for 14.5% of all human-derived greenhouse gases according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. 

At the same time, we already have some solutions at hand. For example, stronger eggshells to prevent one-third of all eggs from breaking, as is currently the case, or extending the shelf life of food to counter the enormous amount of food wasted every day, feed additives that improve digestion and reduce emissions, and sustainable farming that prioritises the wellbeing of animals. Also, the vegetarian burger and other plant-based proteins are on the rise. It’s vital that we sustainably produce these proteins and ensure enough nutritional value in the end product. Health through nutrition, health for people and health for the planet.

If the livestock sector around the world doesn’t innovate while other industries meet their targets, agriculture will account for 27% of emissions by 2030 and 81% by 2050. To bend this curve, we need a systemic change of our global food system. At next year’s UN Food Summit and this year’s pre-Summit in Wageningen, Netherlands, public and private parties will advocate to accelerate this transformation and calls for ‘bold actions for change’. 

The good news is this systemic change is possible. We can create the biggest impact when we solve the sustainable protein challenge at the interface between production and environmental impact: the farm. Around the world, farmers are under growing pressure to farm more sustainably. Yet they’re not being sufficiently rewarded for their achievements. Now it’s time to change that. For example, by financially rewarding every individual farmer for their sustainability contributions, so they can provide a decent income and have long-term prospects. 

Above all, we have to empower consumers to make informed choices through easily understood, standardized sustainability labelling. Nowadays electronic devices and houses in Europe come with colour-coded, mandatory ABCDE energy labels. Could we not use a similar sustainability label for the food we consume every day? 

Food systems are in transition. The Netherlands is a champion in agri-food innovations. But we will not hold that position by being complacent. Governments, farmers, feed companies, science, technology and industry should join forces. If there’s one place where this can work, it’s here. Just like astronaut Mark Watney, with science as the only way forward.

Edith Schippers is President DSM Netherlands, a global science-based company in Nutrition, Health and Sustainable Living

Related links

The Dutch original version of the opinion article was published in Trouw. Or click here.

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