Landmark diet report's neglected message: address population or starve
17 January 2019
Lancet Commission says feeding 11bn sustainably "unlikely"
The newly published and widely-reported EAT-Lancet Commission report on diet and food systems concludes that a “Great Food Transformation” involving profound changes in diet and food production could allow a global human population of 10bn to be fed without causing devastating damage to the environment (1). Crucially, it also warns that if population exceeds 10bn this is “increasingly unlikely”. The most recent UN projections are that population will exceed 10bn early in the second half of the century and by 2100 will be 11.2bn and still increasing. The unstated but unavoidable conclusion to be drawn from the Commission’s work is that unless additional action is taken to curtail human population growth, malnutrition or irreversible environmental damage are inevitable.
The Food in the Anthropocene report's introduction states:
“[A]lthough this Commission uses 2050 as a cutoff, the issues discussed extend beyond 2050. Global population is expected to exceed 11 billion people by 2100 unless actions are taken to stabilise population growth. Healthy diets from sustainable food systems are possible for up to 10 billion people but becomes increasingly unlikely past this population threshold.” [Emphasis added.]
The risk is in fact more grave than the report makes clear. The figures it relies on are the UN’s median population projection. The UN provides a range of projections “with 95% certainty” that the population will fall within the range. At the high end of this range, it projects that population will exceed 10bn shortly after 2050 and reach 13.2bn by 2100 – 30% more people than the Commission’s 10bn “cutoff” for feeding human beings sustainably (2).
The UN itself says that there is “significant uncertainty” about future trends in countries with the highest fertility – the primary drivers of population growth. It also states that even achieving the medium growth it projects will require further improvements in access to reproductive health care (3).
Population Matters Director Robin Maynard says:
“The work of the Commission demands even more and better of us than what one of its authors calls a ‘New Agricultural Revolution’. It requires that we end global population growth as a matter of utmost urgency – or face, to put it bluntly, mass starvation. We have got to move past the illogical and dishonest mindset that population is a fixed variable around which other policy prescriptions must or can adapt. The inconvenient fact of ever growing demand, has to be addressed as well as continually seeking to squeeze more supply from our planet’s already over-stressed farmland, soils and natural resources.
If the numbers say that even the most profound and radical of changes in how we produce and eat food can’t feed us all sustainably, we have to ensure our numbers are in line with what’s possible. We can’t complain about living in a “post-truth’ world in which scientific expertise is ignored and duck this fact.
Achieving lower, sustainable human numbers is absolutely and decently doable. The prescription for population reduction is simple and positive: reduce poverty, empower women, provide decent educations for all, challenge norms favouring large families and provide universal, high quality family planning for everyone. Simple it may be conceptually, but the Commission’s work confirms that we are not doing anything like enough rapidly enough. The message is stark: ending and reversing population growth is central to the challenge of providing the most basic of all human rights – enough to eat.”
Another authoritative report on food sustainability published in December 2018 , by the World Resources Institute, identified very similar problems and solutions to the EAT-Lancet Commission but also explicitly addressed the issue of population. Its “menu” for sustainable food solutions included “achieving replacement fertility levels” (4). At present, the global “Total fertility rate” is 2.5, above the replacement level of 2.1 (5). A more substantial fall in fertility would be required, however, to ensure a continual population of under 10bn.
Alistair Currie, Head of Campaigns and Communications
T: +44 (0)208 123 9170
Notes for editors
(1) Willett et al (2019) Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT-Lancet report on healthy diets from sustainable food systems https://www.thelancet.com/commissions/EAT. Full text (registration required):
(2) United Nations department of Economic and Social Affairs (2018) World population prospects; 2017 revision https://population.un.org/wpp/Publications/Files/WPP2017_KeyFindings.pdf
“To achieve the substantial reductions in fertility projected in the medium variant, it will be essential to support continued improvements in access to reproductive health care services, including family planning, especially in the least developed countries, with a focus on enabling women and couples to achieve their desired family size.”
“[F]or countries with high levels of fertility, there is significant uncertainty in projections of future trends, even within the 15-year horizon of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and more so for the projections to 2100."
(4) World Resources Institute (2018) Creating a sustainable food future https://www.wri.org/publication/creating-sustainable-food-future
(5) UN, ibid
Population Matters is a UK-based charity which campaigns to achieve a sustainable human population, to protect the natural world and improve people’s lives.
We promote positive, practical, ethical solutions – encouraging smaller families, inspiring people to consume sustainably, and helping us all to live within our planet’s natural limits. We believe everyone should have the freedom and ability to choose a smaller family. We support human rights, women’s empowerment and global justice.