We are facing a food crisis.

The human population is outstripping the capacity of the world to feed it; this is compounded by eroding topsoil and the potential for climate change to reduce crop yields. At the same time, human health is getting worse. Two new reports offer new evidence that we may be eating our way into a global catastrophe.

The 2016 Global Nutrition Report links malnutrition – in the form of obesity or under-nutrition – to nearly half of all deaths of children under age 5. Meanwhile, the World Resources Institute (WRI) has issued a working paper showing a massive gap in the total calories available worldwide ten years ago and 35 years hence.

The Coming Food Gap

The WRI paper looks at ways to close to coming “food gap,” which could be devastating. WRI estimates that there is a 70% difference between the total calories available in 2006 and the expected calorie demand in 2050.

That is the base problem, but it gets worse.

People in urban areas eat more animal protein than those in rural areas, and the world is in the midst of a huge population shift to cities. And individual food choices are shaped more and more by advertising and corporate interests rather than traditional ways. According to WRI, “Together, these trends are driving a convergence toward Western-style diets, which are high in calories, protein, and animal-based foods.”

This is a problem for the individuals consuming those diets, as they promote cardiovascular disease and obesity – just as the Global Nutrition Report identifies. It’s also a problem for the planet as a whole. As the paper states, “the scale of this convergence in diets will make it harder for the world to achieve several of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, including those on hunger, healthy lives, water management, climate change, and terrestrial ecosystems.”

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The two documents lead us to the same conclusion: people aren’t eating the food they need.

The immediate impact harms the current generation. Poor food choices – because of poverty or social pressures – leaves children stunted or obese, and their parents at risk for disease and cancer. Over time, these poor food choices place the whole planet at risk – meat and other animal products are expensive to produce and consume, and they require many more resources to produce than a plant-based diet.

The Global Nutrition Report shares sobering data on the economic impact of poor diets.  11 percent of gross domestic product is lost every year in Africa and Asia due to malnutrition. (In comparison, annual global GDP losses from malnutrition are greater than what was lost each year during the 2008-2010 financial crisis.) In the United States, when one person in a household is obese, the household spends on average an additional 8 percent of its annual income in healthcare costs. In China, a diagnosis of diabetes results in an annual 16.3 percent loss of income for those with the disease.

The WRI working paper looks at environmental impact of food choices. “Production of animal-based foods accounted for more than three-quarters of global agricultural land use and around two-thirds of agriculture’s production-related greenhouse gas emissions in 2009, while only contributing 37 percent of total protein consumed by people in that year,” says the report. “Because many animal-based foods rely on crops for feed, increased demand for animal based foods widens the food gap relative to increased demand for plant-based foods.”

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Caption: Protein Consumption Exceeds Average Estimated Daily Requirements in All the World’s Regions, and is Highest in Developed Countries g/capita/day, 2009

The recommendations from the two documents are also complementary. The WRI working paper calls for a shift in the protein sources people consume. Primarily, they recommend a reduction in the consumption of beef. More broadly, the report proposes a “shift wheel,” a framework for changing people’s behavior around food purchase and consumption. They base it on past successful efforts to change consumer purchasing, including the shifts from incandescent to long-life light bulbs, from big box to compact washing powder, from higher- to lower-alcohol beer in Europe, and a shift away from shark fin consumption in China. The Shift Wheel strategy, as they describe it, is made of four approaches: (1) minimize disruption; (2) sell a compelling benefit; (3) maximize awareness and display; and (4) evolve social norms.

Rather than delving into nutrition-specific strategies, the Global Nutrition Report looks at government support for nutrition at the sector level. It identifies a number of ways that other sectors, such as water and sanitation can support better nutrition. Instead of recommendations, it ends with five calls to action. They are 1) Make the political choice to end all forms of malnutrition, 2) Invest more and allocate better, 3) Collect the right data to maximize investments, 4) Invest in carrying out proven and evidence-informed solutions—and in identifying new ones, and 5) Tackle malnutrition in all its forms.

What the reports don’t say

Identifying obesity as a form of malnutrition is a big step. Recognizing that obesity and under-nutrition are related problems, not opposites, is a big step forward in thinking about nutrition. Impressively, Global Nutrition Report simply sets this as the standard for analysis.

The WRI working paper may actually turn out to be very controversial. There is a lot of resistance to the concept of moving away from animal products in diets. Livestock and livestock feed are very profitable components of agribusiness; the industry shows real hostility to promoting plant-based diets. Pointing out the core fact they we won’t have enough food for everyone if we keep using plant crops to grow animals is rarely.

One sentence takeaway

The current human diet is already harming people and the planet, and if we don’t change the way we eat there won’t be enough food for everyone by 2050.

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