KNOWLEDGE MAP Back to overview

An overview of insights on the (un)sustainability of the international food system.

Food & Sustainability

Wherein lies the urgency of sustainability worldwide?

Population growth, urbanization and rising incomes necessitate higher food production in the coming decades, which increases pressure on the environment while the restorative capacity of the earth is already exceeded. The food system puts a considerable burden on ecological preservability.

Demographic developments

The current world population of 7.5 billion will have increased with 1.2 billion by 2030, growing to 9.7 billion in 2050. This growth takes place primarily in developing countries. At the same time, a growing proportion of the world’s population lives in cities, up from 50% today to 70% in 2050, coinciding with increased incomes in emerging countries.

According to FAO estimates, this larger, urbanized and wealthier population will require an increase in food availability of 70%, with a 43% higher cereal availability and 74% higher meat availability. A much lower increase in production will be required when reductions of 30-50% in worldwide food waste are achieved, or when changing diets (for example in Western countries) place lower demands on the planet. 

A parallel development has effects on global public health. A growing proportion of the world is not consuming the right amount of nutrients, specifically too many saturated fats and not enough fibre and minerals, causing adverse effects on public health.

United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (2015), p. 1.

FAO (2009), p. 5-8.

Ecological footprint

The ecological footprint is an instrument that measures how much biologically productive land and water surface an individual, population or activity uses, indicated in hectares. It envelops the space necessary in order to produce raw materials and absorb the waste that is created. The current global footprint is 1.6 times larger than Earth is able to regenerate. If everyone lived as Dutch people do, 3.5 Earths would even be needed.

WWF (2016), p. 13, 74-85.

PBL (2015), p. 5.

Website Global Footprint Network.

Planetary boundaries

In 2009, the Stockholm Resilience Centre formulated nine planetary boundaries within which it is expected that mankind can safely produce and consume. Exceeding any of these limits can have disastrous consequences in the form of abrupt and irreversible changes in the local and global environment. In 2015 a renewed analysed indicated that two out of nine boundaries were exceeded with certainty: genetic biodiversity and biogeochemical cycles (nitrogen and phosphorus). The concepts are further explained in “How does food production impact ecological preservability?”

Rockström, J., Steffen, W., Noone, K., Persson, Å., Chapin, F. S., Lambin, E. F., ... & Foley, J. A. (2009), p. 1, 24.

Steffen et al. (2015), p. 3-5, 15.

For more information and an overview of all boundaries, see the SRC website.

The impact of the global food system

Global food consumption and production is responsible for around 25% of total greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, agriculture is responsible for over 60% of the loss of terrestrial biodiversity. This is mainly due to the use of land for agriculture by replacing nature, as agricultural land has much lower biodiversity than natural land. Phosphate and nitrogen losses and pesticide emissions cause losses in biodiversity in freshwater and coastal seas. Climate change has a negative impact on biodiversity and the availability of arable land and water.

PBL (2013), p. 17.

PBL (2014c).