The way the world is producing the food we eat today is undermining the resources that future populations will need to feed an increasingly crowded world, according to a panel of experts who gathered recently for a webinar on the Harvard University campus.

A centerpiece of the one-hour discussion was a new report that provides increasing evidence that global food production and consumption will have to change dramatically for the world to be able to sustainably feed a global population of more than 10 billion people by 2050. The report carries many implications for the future of Iowa agriculture, which would need to shift to far more diverse and sustainable production methods than in use today.  

The EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health assembled 37 world-leading scientists from across the globe to reach a scientific consensus that defines a healthy and sustainable diet. The commission recently delivered the first full scientific review of what constitutes a healthy diet from a sustainable food system, and which actions can support and speed up food system transformation.

Global food systems are currently “far off track from meeting the challenge,” said Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “If we look at the nutritional status of the world, it’s not a pretty picture,” he said. “We still have 800 million people who are undernourished, and 2 billion people who are overweight or obese, and that number is increasing rapidly all over the world. And most of the rest of the world is eating a diet that’s far from optimal.

“To make it more complicated, the way we’re producing our food today is degrading the planet, and really undermining the resources that are critical to feeding the future population of the world,” Willett said.

Transformation to healthy diets by 2050 will require substantial dietary shifts. Global consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes will have to double, and consumption of foods such as red meat and sugar will have to be reduced by more than 50%, according to the Lancet report. A diet rich in plant-based foods and with fewer animal-source foods confers both improved health and environmental benefits.

Addressing food waste will also be a critical topic to solving hunger and world nutrition crises, the panelists noted. Also on the panel were David Bennell, manager for food, land and water with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, and Ana Sortun, a chef and owner of Oleana, a Mediterranean restaurant in Cambridge, Mass.

Approximately 40% of food is wasted before it reaches consumers’ tables, the report found.

The best way to prevent food waste on a personal level is rather elementary — “Shop your fridge,” said Gina McCarthy, former administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and a professor of public health in the Department of Environmental Health at the Harvard Chan School.