Johan Rockström is a Swedish scientist who is internationally recognised for his work on global sustainability. He is joint director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, professor in Water Systems and Global Sustainability at Stockholm University, and professor in Earth System Science at the University of Potsdam. Rockström is also the Chair of the Tetra Pak Sustainability Advisory Panel.
Johan Rockström is known for his pioneering work on the planetary boundaries framework, which has proven to be fundamental to securing a sustainable future for our planet. Here Rockström gives his thoughts on how global food systems can be remodelled and how Tetra Laval can contribute to increase access to safe and nutritious food within the framework.
The global food system has enabled a ten-fold increase in the global human population over the past two and a half centuries, but still in 2020 some 770 million people were estimated to be undernourished. At the same time, more than 2 billion were overweight or obese – the result of overconsuming highly processed, energy-dense, but nutritionally deficient foods, which have been linked to diseases that cause more than a fifth of all adult deaths.
While underdelivering on healthy and sufficient nutrition for all people, the world’s food value chain is placing an excessive and growing burden on its natural foundations. For instance, it accounts for 21 to 37 per cent of all anthropogenic (caused by humans) greenhouse gas emissions.
Science has found that the destructive and harmful practices of global economy, including food production and consumption, have gone too far, as they are pushing the planetary systems out of the Holocene, the geological epoch characterised by overall favourable climate and environmental conditions that enabled the development of agriculture soon after the end of the last ice age. The international scientific community has come to the conclusion that we have entered the Anthropocene, an entirely new period in Earth’s history, in which globally aggregated human activities have become the cause of dramatic planetary climate and environmental change.
In fact, our food systems are among the main reasons why six of the nine scientifically identified planetary boundaries have been transgressed. These six boundaries are: loss of biodiversity, phosphorus and nitrogen application, greenhouse gas emissions, land use, freshwater use and release of novel entities. A scientific analysis of the role of food systems in crossing the novel entities boundary has just begun, but we already know that the food sector has exceeded its quota in the other five boundaries listed above.
The current mainstream practices in the food sector have proven unable to deliver on providing sufficient and healthy nutrition for everyone now and in the future, while returning and maintaining the global food system in the safe operating zone delineated by the planetary boundaries. This is why we need to adopt a new transformational approach.
It is theoretically possible to feed the entire global population projected for 2050 with a healthy, calorically sufficient diet, without compromising the stability of the Earth’s systems and the provision of essential ecosystem services. In line with the planetary boundaries framework, global action should consist of three things: 1) a shift to healthier diets, 2) radical improvements in food production practices, and 3) a halving of food loss and waste.
A healthy diet is based on a wide variety of plant-based foods (excluding refined grains and starchy vegetables). Such diets can both support human health and contribute to a healthy planet, for example, by reducing greenhouse gas emissions that would otherwise be released from food production in 2050 by 90 per cent. Some of the most important actions to improve food production practices would be to stop any expansion of agriculture into remaining areas of intact natural ecosystems, to radically increase the efficiency of fertiliser use (producing more food per unit nitrogen and phosphorus) and fertiliser recycling, to bring fossil fuel use to zero, and to manage water and soil sustainably. In the developing world, where much of food is lost at the harvesting or post-harvesting stage, interventions should focus on equipping farmers with the information, knowledge and infrastructure that would combat the major causes of this food loss. In the developed world, food waste reduction measures should focus on retailers and consumers, for instance by educating on the accurate meaning of ‘best before’ and ‘use by’ labels, good storage practices and techniques for utilising leftovers.
Access to safe and nutritious food is a basic human right. Access to food must be a top priority for the international community – particularly in the light of unbalances in today’s food systems with water scarcity, soil erosion, massive starvation and price volatility due to the war in Ukraine, just to mention a few.
This means that access to food at affordable prices and that is safe – from food production to packaging and throughout the entire chain to consumers – is fundamental. This ambition is also in line with the United Nations second Sustainable Development Goal: to eradicate hunger and malnutrition by 2030, making sure that all people, especially children, have sufficient and nutritious food all year round.
Clearly, the escalation of the global climate and environmental crises cannot be stopped and reversed without the participation of the global food sector. As a large corporation with presence in more than 160 countries, the Tetra Laval Group can certainly play an important role in transforming global food systems and contributing to safe and nutritious food for everyone.
The products, solutions and services that Tetra Laval offers within food processing and packaging, and milking equipment for dairy farming, contribute to the supply of safe and nutritious food. But its work throughout the whole value chain is just as important – from food production to the end-consumer. For instance, by reducing carbon emissions at every stage of the food supply chain or bringing innovations to the market to reduce food loss and waste. In addition, Tetra Pak is a good example with its collaboration with multiple partners such as the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation’s Committee on World Food Security.
I believe that pessimism is unhelpful, although there are severe difficulties to live up to the commitment of the Paris Agreement, including limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. On the other hand, we already have a range of solutions to halt the global climatic and environmental deterioration that are backed up by strong scientific evidence and are scalable. Businesses like Tetra Laval, with sustainability at the very heart of its business model, will play an important role. So, all in all, some elements are moving in the right direction, but we need to ramp up the pace of the sustainability transition. We now need collective action more than ever before.