Nearly all the world's population could eat well from food produced within their countries’ borders — if countries wasted less food and ate less meat and sugar, researchers have found. In Canada, we would need less than a sixth of our farmland to feed everyone in the country a healthy and climate-friendly diet.
Recent years have seen a cascade of disasters — from droughts and floods to Russia's invasion of Ukraine — disrupt food systems across the globe. That has left many low-income countries starved while wealthier ones like Canada and the U.S. deal with massive amounts of food waste, a major source of greenhouse gas emissions.
Reducing meat and sugar consumption in wealthy countries and growing more diverse foods locally around the world could help reduce some of these discrepancies, explained Nicholas Navarre, a food systems researcher at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands and the author of a study published in the journal One Earth in January.
"If you produce things nationally, you're more in control of the supply chains. You can control what's happening from production to consumption, whereas on the international markets, if something happens across the world, you can't do anything about it and you have to find an alternative."
To reach their conclusion, Navarre's team evaluated United Nations data on the foods each country in the world produces and how much arable land they have against the EAT-Lancet diet. The EAT-Lancet diet was developed in 2019 by climate and health experts and lays out a diet that is good both for people and the planet.
The findings show that most countries could meet all their food and nutritional needs solely with food grown within their borders, Navarre said. Some might have minimal variety, such as cold countries like Norway, but most would have no issues.
However, achieving this would require major transformations in people's diets worldwide, he said.
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Wealthy countries like Canada and European nations would need to drastically cut back their meat and sugar consumption. Meat production demands lots of land to grow feed for animals, meaning it couldn't be used for food production. Sugar has a similar issue, with export-oriented sugar plantations often reducing the amount of land available to farmers growing a diversity of foods for local markets.
"For lots of countries, to use all your available land for crops that are going to be fed to (livestock) is just hugely inefficient in terms of land use," he explained.
In lower-income countries, the biggest gains can be made by reducing the amount of food lost on farms and in transport as a result of factors like bad refrigeration or slow transportation. Making the supply chain linking farms to consumers in these regions more efficient "was a far more valuable intervention" than reducing their already lower meat consumption. Instead of wealthy countries dumping their excess commodity crops like corn or soy on lower-income countries — a long-standing practice — supporting these kinds of initiatives could go a long way to help improve food security and resilience globally, he said.
Still, Navarre said his findings should trigger reflection but aren't necessarily a call for all food production to occur within each country's borders. The type of industrial farming and food supply chains that dominate in many parts of the world — including Canada — have contributed to an unequal distribution of food while reducing countries' climate resilience.
Instead of moving food around the world, "sharing (agricultural) knowledge and making food production closer to home can give more access and maybe help farmers in countries across the world to produce foods that their populations can afford," he said.
If you wish to buy cereal
If you wish to buy cereal without sugar you will find it expensive. That is because sugar is much cheaper than cereal, which results in the cheapest cereals having high sugar contents.
Yes, we should try to
Yes, we should try to maintain a diet of food that is available close to us, I absolutely agree, But that, in places where pasture land is available, that would include meat. The premise that pasture land can or should always be turned into cropland is simply misguided. Cultivating land comes with serious ecological consequences for biodiversity, for soil structure, for the release of carbon; it is sometimes marginal land simply unsuitable for cultivation; and it may completely destroy native plant groups that are extremely valuable, such as native grasses which are becoming increasingly rare. I would encourage scientist and journalists to broaden their view, to look at the implications of their sometimes facile conclusions. And, no, eating one less hamburger is not going to be the solution; and, no, mining for lithium and rare earth minerals is not going to save the world, nor is manufacturing new electric cars, it is simply going to compound the problem...the list goes on. Think!
Who says that pasture land
Who says that pasture land can or should always be turned into cropland? No one. Land currently devoted to pasture would not be needed in a rational food system.
“If everyone shifted to a plant-based diet we would reduce global land use for agriculture by 75%. This large reduction of agricultural land use would be possible thanks to a reduction in land used for grazing and a smaller need for land to grow crops.”
Land devoted to pasture and raising crops for animals comes with a huge opportunity costs.
“If we were not using this land to grow food, it would be possible that forests and wild grasslands grow on these lands. They would not only harbour wildlife, but also store much more carbon. Meat and dairy products need more land than alternatives, and therefore have a higher opportunity cost.”
“Reducing our consumption of farmed meat by 70%—in line with the dietary recommendations made by the EAT-Lancet Commission—would ultimately free up enough land to sequester 332 gigatons of carbon by 2050, through restored vegetation and soil. If humanity took a more drastic global step and switched to an entirely vegan diet, the sequestering potential of freed land would rise to 547 gigatons.”
“The livestock industry has fought back with a massive public relations campaign, seeking to persuade people that pasture-fed meat helps reduce global heating by storing carbon in the soil. Yet, despite the many claims, there is no empirical evidence that carbon storage in pastures can even compensate for grazing’s current account emissions, let alone address the capital debt.”