This blog will discuss the issue of a growing population putting pressure on our global food system, and how a flexitarian diet may be the solution needed to ensure a secure food future, with specific reference to environmental effects.

The Challenge

By 2050 there will be an estimated 9.8 billion people on the planet, and with already incredible pressure on our global food system, how are we going to feed an extra 2 billion people?

Food security is the “physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”, for all people, all the time.

Food systems are under pressure, threatening future food security, mainly because of the impact of rising global demand for a diet rich in meat and animal products, caused by population growth, urbanisation and rising incomes. Production and consumption of higher volumes of meat and animal products is resource intensive, threatening the sustainability of food provision. Food systems and food security are complex interrelated systems with widespread impacts. Environmental impacts are potentially the most discussed issue around the global food system.

Changes need to be made to our meat and animal product consumption and production to meet the growing demand of food in an environmentally and socially sustainable way.

One Solution?

An evolving area is the promotion of sustainable diets, which have minimal impact on the environment, while promoting food and nutrition security for present and future generations.

Enter the flexitarian diet: it aims to reduce the amount of meat and animal products in an individual’s diet. It is a ‘planetary healthy diet’ that is made up of vegetables, fruits, wholegrains, legumes, nuts and unsaturated oils. Any meat, dairy and sugar included is of high quality, but in low quantity.

Examples of flexitarian meals, EAT-Lancet Report

Flexitarianism is, arguably, a necessary step to ensure a food secure future for the predicted 9.8 billion people in 2050, as it focuses on reducing animal-based products. This is attracting media and public interest. In the UK, 34% on people are not flexitarians and many mainstream organisations successfully promote plant-based food alternatives.

How will a flexitarian diet help achieve food security?

Adopting a flexitarian diet will lead to a reduced demand for animal and meat products, will impact on key environmental issues, and have additional benefits of improved food security.

Land Use

To be able to produce enough food in 2050 for 9.8 billion people, we will need an additional 593 million-hectare land area for agricultural use. Land is a limited resource and there are already conflicts between feeding the global population from land used for livestock and animal feed, and other demands such as nature, housing, and biofuels. Meat is resource intensive to produce and requires 20 times more land per gram of edible protein than common plant proteins.

A damaging solution for creating additional land for agriculture is deforestation, mostly tropical rainforests, to clear large areas for livestock pasture and feed. The Amazon Forest Fires in July 2019 were mostly related to agriculture, including farmers clearing areas for cropland and livestock. An estimated 2,254 sq. km of rainforest was lost over a month.

Satellite image: Amazon Forest fires 2019. Photograph: Reuters, The Guardian

Adopting a flexitarian diet could potentially reduce land demand for meat and animal products by 38%, encouraging use to make more sustainable use of the land we already have. This would allow us to expand crop growth for human consumption without increasing deforestation and changing land use.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHGE)

GHGE contribute to the planets rising temperature that is detrimental for climate change. Climate change is causing more extreme weather conditions, including droughts and flooding. This influences food production and distribution, creating challenges for farmers. The current agricultural practices of intensive farming and large numbers of ruminant livestock significantly contribute to rising GHGE. Reducing meat and animal product consumption through flexitarian diet will reduce GHGE from these agricultural practices.

Poore and Nemecek found that even the lowest impact animal products (i.e. poultry) still produce higher GHGE than any plant-based product. If a plant-based diet was adopted globally there would be a 73% reduction is GHGE compared to an average meat-eating diet. However, they acknowledge that this is unrealistic for everyone, so they further proposed that a flexitarian diet, reducing animal-product consumption by 50%, would achieve a 73% reduction of what was suggested of an entirely plant-based diet.

A flexitarian diet will directly reduce the GHGE associated with meat production and help to mitigate climate change to allow for more stable conditions to produce more food.

Why is a flexitarian diet more sustainable for future food security than other diets?

The above evidence suggests a completely plant-based diet for everyone is the solution for future food security instead of a flexitarian diet, but there are a few issues with this ideal.

The complete removal of animal-based products from our diets may be too daunting for some people. Therefore, the flexitarian diet is a more manageable step for people to start reducing the impact of their diet than a completely plant-based diet, making it more of an achievable goal for more people.

A flexitarian diet is also more accessible, as it is easier for people to get the essential nutrients they need from their diet than a completely plant-based diet. This is because it is a balance between the benefits of high fibre, plant-based foods with the nutrients found in animal products.

However, it is not accessible for every member of the population. There are many individuals in the developing world that rely on meat and animal products as a major source of important nutrients and protein that they cannot get from other sources. This is because they lack access to a variety of other sources of food for these nutrients. Therefore, a flexitarian diet can only, and should be, adopted by industrialised countries.

Additionally, removing whole food groups may have its own negative environmental impacts. It may put environmental pressures on other food sources that plant-based diets need to get enough fats and proteins they don’t get from animal-based products. An example is California, a state that is experiencing a drought, but still produces 80% of the world’s almonds. This is a process that requires a lot of water.  

There are also benefits of rearing and maintaining livestock. They can have positive effects on the environment, such as animals can improve the environment by building up soil. Livestock farming is also central to some communities and may form the basis of their income, such as the use of draught animals by rural communities in India. This is another aspect of food security, and complete removal of the demand for animal-based products could be detrimental for the livelihoods of these communities.

A flexitarian diet is only part of the solution

The flexitarian diet can contribute to positive environmental change and can help ensure a secure food future for the rising population. It may be overly simplistic as a concept but is accessible for large numbers of people to make small changes with a potentially huge impact. It does not address all aspects of food security and other changes will need to be implemented to make a substantial difference to food security.

Progress has been made to outline other changes that may ensure a food-secure future:

  • Godfray proposed that the world does not just need to ensure more food is produced, but that it is used and distributed more efficiently and fairly, and that this needs to be a global approach that includes closing the yield gap, increasing production limits, reducing waste, and changing diets.
  • WRI outlined five areas as all critical for imposing change, with additional goals under these targets that have the aims of ensuring food security in 2050, one of these targets is a shift to a more sustainable diet.
  • Springmann conducted a study that found that, alongside a flexitarian diet, we also need to reduce our food waste and improve our farming practices. These three solutions must be implemented together to have a significant impact on climate change and ensuring food security.

All these proposals present a variety of changes, with a shift to a more sustainable, flexitarian diet being only a small part.

The next big step would be for a reduction in the production of meat and animal products to be included in legislation. There are strong recommendations by international organisations to reduce meat and animal product consumption, but for greater changes to occur the initiative needs the backing of governments and policies.

Ultimately, we need to make significant changes to the whole food system to achieve sustainable food security for 9.8 billion people by 2050. However, a flexitarian diet is a significant first step to achieving this, as small changes by large numbers of people have the potential to make huge differences, but it is not the whole solution.