Feeding an ever-increasing human population is one of the biggest challenges facing us today, especially considering the effects of climate change that are likely to hit us in the near future.
Given that further deforestation is no longer a viable option if we are to have a liveable planet in the coming decades – and we already clear an area the size of Panama every single year – innovative solutions are mandatory.
To that end, researchers have recently modelled how the world could feed itself in 2050 without converting any current forests into agricultural land. All in all, 500 scenarios were tested, varying in realistic assumptions on future yields, required farmland, livestock feed and human diets.
While continuing deforestation was not found to be a “biophysical necessity” per se, our options aren’t exactly limitless – it turns out that the kind of food we eat matters substantially more than how well we farm.
“The only diet found to work with all future possible scenarios of yield and cropland area, including 100% organic agriculture, was a plant-based one,” said study lead author Karl-Heinz Erb.
If we all woke up vegan in 2050, we would require less cropland than we did in the year 2000, which would allow us to “reforest” an area around the size of the entire Amazon rainforest, or “only” a patch of land the size of India under a vegetarian scenario.
This is because of the built-in inefficiency of converting plant food into meat. For example, it takes an astounding 25 kg of grain, which we could eat directly, to produce just 1 kg of beef.
Compared to eating plant-based, diets heavier in meat would require a 50% increase in global cropland area by 2050. To do this without cutting even more trees, we’d have to convert lots of pasture and substantially increase yields, likely through using chemicals – both of which generally lead to decreases in biodiversity.
As the study authors stress, however, while cutting down on meat would be a great help, it doesn’t have to be crossed out of the menu completely.
The study was published in the science journal Nature Communications.