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Long-term Trends in Nutrition, Health and the Environment

Undernourishment and Body Mass Index 1960-2100.

A recent speech by UN Secretary-General António Guterres addressed the state of the planet and the critical need to take urgent climate action. Outlined was the obligation to reduce the negative consequences of, amongst other human practices, the devastating impacts of the current food system on the planet. The Secretary-General expressed that with biodiversity collapsing, ecosystems disappearing and the over-fishing of oceans, the results are "impeding our efforts to eliminate poverty" and "imperilling food security". These statements resonate with recent findings by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) on long-term trends in nutrition, global health and the environment.

Despite the huge impacts on the planet by the vast food industry, it has not translated into improved nutrition and health equally across the planet. Findings recently published by PIK find that SDG target 2.1, 'End Global Hunger by 2030' would not even be reached by 2100 and that whilst by 2050, the proportion of those underweight may almost halve, absolute numbers will stagnate at 400-700 million (p. 1). So instead of ending hunger by 2030, it would continue in a persistent cycle. Further, their findings suggest that approximately 45% of the world's population will be overweight and 16% obese in 2050, compared to 29% and 9% in 2010, respectively, resulting in damage to both health and the environment (p. 3).

Undernourishment and Body Mass Index 1960-2100.

PIK's findings, published in the journal 'Nature', suggest that more wasteful consumption patterns, increasing body mass, population growth and ageing are jointly pushing global food demand to grow by 50% by 2050, compared to 2010. The projected growth of food demand "will result in unsustainable land expansion, water withdrawals, nutrient pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity loss" (p. 8).

Global food demand 1960-2100.

The food system is responsible for 70% of water consumption and 21-37% of man-made greenhouse gas emissions (PIK, Rosenzweig et al.). "Reducing household waste, animal-source foods, and overweight could synergistically address multiple symptoms at once while eliminating underweight would not substantially increase food demand" (p. 1) The regulation of food waste offers the highest reduction potential for the agricultural footprint: about 25% in 2010, and 33% in 2050 (p. 4).

Similarly to the PIK's findings that suggest tackling nutritional problems and food waste would simultaneously affect several issues, the UN Secretary-General claims that through "biodiversity positive agriculture and fisheries" we could reduce the "over-exploitation and destruction of the natural world". Continued effort is urgently required if many of the SDG targets to improve nutrition and to protect the environment and global health are to be achieved.


Chloë Mills and Lars Vogelsang