The Savills Blog

Savills Impacts: How can the world feed nine billion people?

A growing population and changing diets combined with a global acknowledgement of the need to produce food more sustainably are increasingly driving the agriculture agenda.

In 2018, the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) published its Global Food Sustainability Index, covering 67 of the world’s major agricultural producers. Each country was ranked by indicators across three primary categories: food loss and waste, sustainable agriculture and nutritional challenges.

The worst offenders for importing water in food were the UK, Germany and Japan, each of which import high levels of fresh produce to meet consumer demand. And agriculture’s huge thirst for water is not just limited to the trade of fresh produce: meat production is a major drain on this resource.

Savills research evaluated the sustainability of eight sources of protein (see chart below) by comparing the water and land required to produce one gram of protein, as well as the resulting greenhouse gas emissions.

It found that, to produce the equivalent amount of protein, the environmental impact of each protein source analysed varied significantly with beef at 100 per cent and insects at 0.3 per cent. Insects also have an impressive capacity for converting food into body mass with a 90 per cent conversion rate.


Environmental impact of protein production – in terms of water and land use, and greenhouse gas emissions, compared with beef

In the EU and the US there has been a shift away from red to white protein, with poultry generally acknowledged as a less resource-intensive meat. However, the dietary trend of other economies particularly that of developing nations such as China is pushing global diets in the opposite direction. In 2017, for the first time China consumed more meat in weight than Europe and the US combined, a trend the OECD predicts will grow.

If a growing Chinese population consumed the same amount of meat as the EU and US, where meat consumption combined is almost 700 million tonnes per year, the additional strain on the environment would be the same as an additional 158 million cars on the world’s roads.

Add in the fact higher protein diets are being adopted in countries including South Africa and Brazil and it is clear that a rebalancing of global meat production and consumption seems a necessary outcome if the planet is to meet sustainability targets.

To achieve this, a major realignment of national trade policies is needed to match global supply and demand requirements, alongside a substantial shift in global diets.

There will undoubtedly be some key issues to address including whether or not food policy in developed countries will support consumers in switching to healthier diets, and whether developing countries will leapfrog the excessive growth phase in the West and adopt a more balanced approach towards protein consumption.

Evidently, there are major challenges in achieving sustainable agriculture, but with resource pressures mounting and reporting frameworks now in place, a change looks increasingly likely.


Further information

This blog is inspired by a theme in Impacts, Savills global thought leadership publication and research programme. This year is the ‘disruption issue’, looking at how widespread economic, political, demographic and technological upheaval is changing the world of real estate.

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