Carrots at the Farmers Market, Portland

Fruits and Veggies, Talk and Reality

What if we could snap our fingers and have everyone start eating all the fruits and veggies that the World Health Organization recommends? We would simply run out. Demand would outstrip supply by anywhere from 90 to 128 percent. Production capacity is too low. Food waste is too high. So there’s a big gap between the talk of shifting global diets toward more plants and the reality of what global food systems can deliver.

Careful Modeling

In Lancet Planetary Health, Daniel Mason-D’Croz and colleagues published a careful modeling study of global supply and demand for fruits and vegetables. They found that in 2015, 45 percent of the world’s population didn’t have an adequate supply to meet WHO-recommended minimums. That was the best-case estimate. With less optimistic assumptions, they estimated that as much as 64 percent of the world might fall short.

So snapping fingers and issuing guidance clearly will not be enough. Part of the problem is land use. We’re quickly using up land that can support food production. Agriculture uses nearly half of all the vegetated land on Earth. And about a third of all cropland is used to grow feed for animals. It’s inefficient and it’s unsustainable. Animal agriculture is a significant contributor to greenhouse gases.

Looking forward to 2050, the problem becomes more acute. The World Resources Institute estimates a shortfall of 7.4 quadrillion calories needed to feed the world by then.

Food Systems: Enemies and Allies

Clearly, we need change. Food systems must become more productive, sustainable, and efficient. Food waste siphons off a third of all food production. It’s intolerable for a sustainable future.

But again, changing global food systems will not come with a snap of our fingers. Some parts of the system will resist change for fear of lost profits and market power. Others will see opportunity. Rhetoric that assumes “Big Food” is a monolithic enemy of change is naive.

Change will come only when stakeholders in the current system both feel pressure for it and opportunities in it. And then, those that don’t will be left behind. If you want everyone to eat their fruits and veggies, “Big Food” will have to adapt.

Click here for the study by Mason-D’Croz et al and here for the report from World Resources. For further perspective, click here and here.

Carrots at the Farmers Market, Portland; photograph © Al Case / flickr

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July 21, 2019