Is a global food crisis avoidable?

The 360 shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories.

What's happening:

Damage caused by human exploitation of natural resources and by climate change may combine to create a global food crisis in the future, according to a new report released by the United Nations.

The report, prepared by more than 100 experts from 52 countries, warns that current land use practices — including deforestation, chemical fertilizers and destructive farming techniques — have already made massive swaths of the planet unsuitable for food production. Even more land mass will either be dried out or rendered unusable by severe weather due to climate change, the report states.

As a result, there may not be enough fertile land for mankind to produce the food it needs to feed its expanding population. The report warns that food scarcity may be concentrated in certain areas, which could cause a massive immigration crisis in number of places around the globe.

Why there's debate:

Although the warnings in the report are dire, a number of remedies have been proposed to prevent a global food crisis. Most of them require enormous changes in how humans use land and produce food.

One of the most frequently suggested solutions is for people, particularly those in developed nations, to switch to a plant-based diet. Raising livestock for meat, especially beef, is inefficient, destructive and adds carbon to the atmosphere, experts argue.

Other potential methods of avoiding a food crisis include using biotech to develop more resilient crops, changing how cities are designed, decreasing food waste and rebuilding forests and other ecosystems that take carbon out of the atmosphere.

These solutions would require major changes in how humans interact with the planet. They would also likely face intense resistance from business and political interests that oppose them.


Humans must change to a plant-based diet that is more efficient and less destructive.

“To really succeed, [the solution] will require hundreds of millions of affluent people in the Northern Hemisphere to change their diet, eating many more plants and much less meat—and especially much less red meat—than they do now.” — Robinson Meyer, The Atlantic

The world’s agricultural methods need to be changed.

“The biggest hurdle we face is to try and teach about half a billion farmers globally to re-work their agricultural model to be carbon sensitive.” — Agriculture expert André Laperrière to Nature

Scientists can develop new crops that can survive in increasingly harsh conditions.

“The biotech world will need to provide more drought-resistant crop varieties for dry regions at risk of losing their farmland to desertification, for example, or insect-resistant varieties to combat changes in the geographic ranges of pest species.” — Scott K. Johnson, Ars Technica

Redesign cities to encourage more people to live in city centers instead of the suburbs.

“Pro-density development plans that limit the outward growth of urban areas to avoid destroying natural landscape should be a crucial first step.” — Patrick Sisson, Curbed

Wealthy countries need to prioritize solutions that will benefit areas with the most vulnerable people.

“While most people in the Western world are still only beginning to see and feel the effects of climate change, they must continue to commit resources to those most vulnerable and worse-off communities, who are often invisible to them.” — Morten Fibieger Byskov, The Conversation

No one-size-fits-all solution exists.

“The vast scale of this crisis can only be tackled through massive, perhaps unparalleled cooperation—everyone needs to find the solutions that work for their corner of the world. But by tailoring solutions to a community, researchers can capitalize on particular customs.” — Matt Simon, Wired

Humans must dramatically decrease the amount of food they waste.

“There’s a fundamental problem in our food system: Up to 30 percent of the food we produce is wasted. … This waste has huge environmental costs. Food lost to waste accounts for upward of 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. If the world were to drastically limit food waste, farmers would need less land, less fuel, less water, and less fertilizer, all of which would translate to a smaller environmental footprint.” — Umair Irfan, Vox

Individual behavior can only go so far. Governments must lead the change.

“Governments can take the new report and use it as a guide for planning new policy, but businesses also play a key role—particularly food businesses and any companies that use materials from forests.” — Adele Peters, Fast Company

Mankind must fundamentally change its relationship with the planet.

“Until we realize that we exist as part of an ecosystem, that we are part of a living planet, we will continue to destroy the soil that makes our existence possible.” — Eric Holthaus, Rolling Stone

People will have to elect leaders who prioritize solving the problem.

“We have to make sure that we elect politicians who will vote in our interest, who will act in our interests rather than polluting interests who too often fund their campaigns and have them in their hip pockets.” — Penn State University professor Michael Mann to CNN

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