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Unhealthy Food Production Making Healthy Eating Impossible

Hidden killers in food production are making healthy eating impossible for people around the world, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

According to Cities and Circular Economy for Food, excessive use of pesticides, antibiotics in livestock farming, and poor management of fertilizers could lead to 5 million deaths a year globally by 2050 — that is twice the current number of deaths caused by obesity and four times the number due to road traffic crashes.

The report, launched today at the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, highlights the enormous environmental damage caused by food production. Synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and mismanaged manure exacerbate air pollution and contaminate soils and water. Food production is currently responsible for almost a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Even when trying to make healthy food choices, consumers are at risk because of the way food has been produced. To ensure people around the globe can eat healthily, we must not only consider what we eat, but how it is produced. Here, the EMF sets out a vision for a new system — in which food is grown locally and in a way that regenerates natural resources, waste is eliminated through better redistribution and byproduct use, and healthy food is produced without the need for harmful practices.

“The way we produce food today is not only extremely wasteful and damaging to the environment, it is causing serious health problems,” said Dame Ellen MacArthur. “It cannot continue in the long term; we urgently need to redesign the system.”

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The report finds that eliminating waste and improving health through a circular economy could be worth US$2.7 trillion a year to the global economy. Health costs caused by pesticide use would decrease by $550 billion a year; and antimicrobial resistance, air pollution, water contamination and food-borne diseases would reduce significantly. Greenhouse gas emissions would be expected to decrease by 4.3 Gt CO2e, the equivalent of taking one billion cars off the road permanently. The degradation of 15 million hectares of arable land would be prevented and 450 trillion liters of fresh water saved annually.

Cities are key to this food revolution: By 2050, they will consume 80 percent of food, giving them the power to drive the shift to this healthy system. Cities themselves can unlock US$700 billion a year by using organic materials to help produce new food and products, and by reducing edible food waste.

The publication of Cities and Circular Economy for Food follows the launch yesterday of another EMF report that examines how artificial intelligence could be applied to create a regenerative, circular economy for food and agriculture; as well as last week’s release of the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health.

Dr Gunhild Stordalen, founder and executive chair of EAT, said: “We cannot achieve a healthy planet and healthy population without a fundamental transformation of our entire food system. Cities and Circular Economy for Food describes an approach starting with cities and presents a vision of a future where the way we produce and consume food contributes to environmental and health benefits, instead of damaging human health and the environment. Achieving this is urgent, but no quick fix will get us there. We do have the knowledge and tools to act — and the circular economy approach will be a critical component.”

The report was written with analytical support from SYSTEMIQ. Founder and managing partner Martin Stuchtey said: “As pressures on the food system continue to mount — expanding urbanisation, doubling of food demand, increasing food waste, and growing health, environmental and economic costs — it is time to step back and reconsider our actions. The concept of a circular and regenerative food system offers entirely new solutions, driven by reconnecting urban consumers with food production. Our analysis shows this is an economically attractive opportunity we cannot afford to ignore.”

The report was made possible by philanthropic partners Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, players of People’s Postcode Lottery and Porticus; in collaboration with lead partners Intesa Sanpaolo and Intesa Sanpaolo Innovation Center; and core partners Danone, Sitra, Suez, Tetra Pak and Veolia.

Cities and Circular Economy for Food is an affiliate project of the World Economic Forum’s Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy (PACE). The report has been produced as part of Project Mainstream, a CEO-led global initiative created by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the World Economic Forum, which helps to scale business-driven circular economy innovations.

Key data and examples

For every US$1 spent on food, society pays $2 in health, environmental and economic costs. These negative impacts cost $5.7 trillion each year — as much as obesity, malnutrition, and other food consumption issues combined. These costs are related to:

  • Extraction of finite resources: Vast amounts of phosphorus, potassium, and other finite resources are used in farming. From tractors on the field to food-processing plants and fleets of distribution trucks, most activities in the food system still rely on fossil fuels. For every calorie of food consumed in the US, the equivalent energy of 13 calories of oil are burned to produce it.

  • Waste: Today, aside from our thousands of tons of preventable food waste each year, less than 2 percent of the valuable nutrients in food by-products and human waste in cities are valorized safely and productively. Instead, these nutrients are typically destined for landfill, incinerators or, worse, languish in open dumps or are released untreated, where they pose health hazards to nearby residents and the environment.

  • Pollution: Pesticides and synthetic fertilizers used in conventional farming practices, along with mismanagement of manure, can exacerbate air pollution, contaminate soils, and leach chemicals into water supplies. Poor management of food waste and by-products generated during food processing, distribution, and packaging further pollutes water, particularly in emerging economies. The agrifood industry is the world’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, responsible for about 25 percent of all human-caused emissions.

  • Degradation of natural capital: Each year, poor agricultural practices degrade natural capital — 15 million hectares of arable land are lost; approximately 70 percent of global freshwater demand is used for agriculture; and the industry was responsible for about 73 percent of deforestation between 2000 and 2010.

If nothing changes?

Air pollution and water contamination, along with antimicrobial resistance exacerbated by antibiotics use in animal farming and inadequately treated wastewaters, could contribute to the aforementioned 5 million deaths a year globally by 2050. The food system alone will have used up two-thirds of the remaining global carbon budget remaining to have a reasonable chance of limiting global warming to 1.5°C or less compared to pre-industrial levels.