Monday, April 22, 2024

The future of food systems

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Existing resources must be used effectively to produce more food to match the future demand to feed the world.
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Existing resources must be used effectively to produce more food to match the future demand to feed the world.

As the global population rises and becomes more affluent, more net protein is needed to match an increase in demand of almost 100% by 2050. 

But the amount of land we have to produce this protein will not change and approximately only 4% of the earth’s surface is appropriate for crop cultivation, and we have limited resources that must be used efficiently to ensure the future of food security, Harper Adams University chair in sustainable beef production Jude Capper says.

Capper was part of a panel discussion at the United Nations Food Systems Pre-Summit that was held in a hybrid format across Rome and digital platforms in July. The panel were discussing the future of protein security, focusing on maximising the efficiency of production resources without unintended social, cultural and environmental consequences.

Alternative proteins are creating excitement, but many new proteins are marketed by simply repackaging existing nutrients into plant-based meats and milk products, which means there is no net supply increase in protein. And the calls for reductions in animal agriculture could create a protein deficit that cannot be overcome by growing crops due to the limitations of available arable land and water. 

“We often talk about producing a certain amount of food per amount of land or per amount of greenhouse gas, or whatever it might be, but the amount of food is not necessarily what matters,” Capper says.

“It’s about the limiting nutrients and we’re focusing very much on protein right now.”

A recent data review in the Global Food Security journal shows when total protein intake is corrected for poor digestibility and amino acid composition of plant-based proteins, none of the 103 countries reviewed is currently meeting the protein requirements of their population.

Livestock contributes to food security by supplying essential macro and micro-nutrients, providing manure and draught power and generating income. But they also consume food edible by humans and graze on pastures that could be used for crop production. 

“It’s important to recognise that a sizable number of our global population rely on livestock for their income, for their health, for their education, so we have billions of smallholder farmers across the globe who absolutely rely on livestock,” he says.

“And livestock give us more than just food, they provide us with protein and energy and essential fatty acids and minerals, but they always also have huge roles in terms of byproducts in terms of pharmaceuticals, manure, leather (and) et cetera.”

A recent review by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) states that 86% of global livestock feed is classified as inedible to humans. The work highlights the ability of livestock to convert human inedible raw materials into high-quality food, particularly protein, for people. 

South Dakota beef producer and author Amanda Radke says food from animal sources also makes an important contribution to food security through the provision of a variety of micronutrients, for example, vitamin A, vitamin B-12, riboflavin, calcium, iron and zinc, but it can be difficult to obtain these in adequate quantities from plant-source foods alone.

“We need to truly compare apples to apples and so calorie for calorie of what animal protein, particularly beef, has to offer,” Radke says.

“It is an incredibly nutrient-dense product and to get the same amount of protein that you could get from 180 calories in a three-ounce serving of beef you would have to eat about 600 calories of broccoli or quinoa or peanut butter.

“When we’re looking at the environmental impacts of different protein products, we need to really start comparing things like water usage and the natural resources used to get the equivalent nutrient density.”

Radke also highlighted that a lot of livestock feed comes from byproducts or co-products of human food production.

“If we use the US for example, there is a lot of crop agriculture that takes place in California, and there’s also a lot of dairy production,” she says.

“And what’s interesting is all those industries are really tied together. Where we have oranges that are going for orange juice and making citrus pulp as a byproduct that ends up in the diets of dairy cows.”

She believes the biggest element that would help food security surrounds wastage.

“Of the food we grow here in the US, meat or not, 40% ends up in landfills, which I think is critical if we work on reducing that wastage.

“And the second part we need to focus on is distributing that food that would otherwise go wasted and getting it to parts of the world where food is scarcer.”

The conversation around the future of food systems will continue at the 2021 Food Systems Summit in New York. Science and innovation are key to driving sustainable agricultural productivity, ensuring food security and better nutrition for everyone. And advancing a policy framework and innovative solutions to improve access to healthy and sustainable food will require multi-sectoral engagement.

“Every stakeholder in the food production system should be focusing on serving the needs of their customers,” she says.

“Whether that’s raising almonds and broccoli or raising nutrient-dense beef, there is a customer that needs these products and to truly be secure and to be free, and to be able to make choices that best fit the needs of our families is incredibly important to have a happy healthy food system.”

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