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Feeding ten billion people is possible within four terrestrial planetary boundaries

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[view-only OPEN ACCESS version of the article is available at] Global agriculture puts heavy pressure on planetary boundaries, posing the challenge to achieve future food security without compromising Earth system resilience. On the basis of process-detailed, spatially explicit representation of four interlinked planetary boundaries (biosphere integrity, land-system change, freshwater use, nitrogen flows) and agricultural systems in an internally consistent model framework, we here show that almost half of current global food production depends on planetary boundary transgressions. Hotspot regions, mainly in Asia, even face simultaneous transgression of multiple underlying local boundaries. If these boundaries were strictly respected, the present food system could provide a balanced diet (2,355 kcal per capita per day) for 3.4 billion people only. However, as we also demonstrate, transformation towards more sustainable production and consumption patterns could support 10.2 billion people within the planetary boundaries analysed. Key prerequisites are spatially redistributed cropland, improved water–nutrient management, food waste reduction and dietary changes. Agriculture transforms the Earth and risks crossing thresholds for a healthy planet. This study finds almost half of current food production crosses such boundaries, as for freshwater use, but that transformation towards more sustainable production and consumption could support 10.2 billion people.
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1Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Member of the Leibniz Association, Potsdam, Germany. 2Geography Department, Humboldt-Universität
zu Berlin, Berlin, Germany. 3Integrative Research Institute on Transformations of Human–Environment Systems, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Berlin,
Germany. 4Water & Development Research Group, Aalto University, Espoo, Finland. 5Department of Computer Science, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL,
USA. 6NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, New York, NY, USA. 7Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden.
8Bolin Centre for Climate Research, Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden. *e-mail:
Adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals by all nations
in 2015 is the first ever commitment to a world develop-
ment path that safeguards the stability of the Earth system
as a prerequisite for meeting universal human standards1. The long-
standing challenge of achieving food security through sustainable
agriculture is particularly acute in this context as world agriculture
is a leading cause for the current transgressions of multiple plan-
etary boundaries (PBs) globally and regionally25. The PB frame-
work is a comprehensive scientific attempt to synoptically define
our planet’s biogeophysical limits to anthropogenic interference. It
suggests bounds to nine interacting processes that together delin-
eate a Holocene-like Earth system state. The Holocene is chosen as
the reference state as it is the only period known to provide a safe
operating space for a world population of several billion people,
and according to a precautionary principle, the PBs are set in suf-
ficient distance from processes that may critically undermine Earth
system resilience and global sustainability. A challenging question,
thus, is whether human development goals such as food security
can be met while maintaining multiple PBs along with their sub-
global manifestations.
Further PB transgressions could jeopardize the chances of provid-
ing sufficient food for a world population projected to be wealthier
and reach >9 billion by 2050. This conundrum portrays a tradeoff
between Earth’s biophysical carrying capacity and humankinds ris-
ing food demand, calling in response for radical rethinking of food
production and consumption patterns69. Yield gap closures, avoid-
ance of excessive input use, shifts towards less resource-demanding
diets, food waste reductions and efficient international trade are
crucial options for sustainably increasing the food supply1015. For
example, enhancing water-use efficiency on irrigated and rain-fed
farms can triple or quadruple crop yields in low-performing systems,
suggesting possible global gains of >20% (ref. 16). Even higher gains
appear feasible through globally optimized configurations of the
land-use pattern17, and cutting food losses by half could generate
food for another billion people18. Thus, collective large-scale imple-
mentation of such options could sustain food for a further growing
world population19. Yet achieving this within a safe operating space
as defined by PBs requires not only a halt to but actually a reversal
of existing PB transgressions. Previous studies suggest that such a
reconciliation might be possible, but these were based on aggre-
gate representations of PBs (not accounting for the spatial patterns
of limits, transgressions and interactions) or considered only one
boundary in isolation17,2023.
Here, we systematically quantify to what extent current food pro-
duction depends on local to global transgressions of the PBs for bio-
sphere integrity, land-system change, freshwater use and nitrogen
(N) flows, along with the potential of a range of solutions to avoid
these transgressions and still increase food supply (Table 1). To this
end, we configured an internally consistent process-based model of
the terrestrial biosphere including agriculture (LPJmL) with multi-
ple spatially distributed PBs and their interactions. LPJmL is among
the longest-established and best-evaluated biosphere models, show-
ing robust performance regarding simulation of, for example, car-
bon, water and crop yield dynamics (Supplementary Figs. 1 and 2
and Supplementary Table 1; see ref. 24 for a comprehensive bench-
marking and Supplementary Methods for more detail on model
evaluations). In principle following established definitions4, we
refine the computation of some PBs with respect to their regional
patterns and interactions (Methods), providing globally gridded
precautionary limits to human interference with the Earth system at
a level of great detail. In particular, we account for the evidence that
many PBs need to be represented spatially explicitly4 to cover their
Feeding ten billion people is possible within four
terrestrial planetary boundaries
Dieter Gerten 1,2,3*, Vera Heck 1,4, Jonas Jägermeyr 1,5,6, Benjamin Leon Bodirsky 1,
Ingo Fetzer 7,8 , Mika Jalava 4, Matti Kummu 4, Wolfgang Lucht 1,2,3, Johan Rockström1,
Sibyll Schaphoff 1 and Hans Joachim Schellnhuber1
Global agriculture puts heavy pressure on planetary boundaries, posing the challenge to achieve future food security without
compromising Earth system resilience. On the basis of process-detailed, spatially explicit representation of four interlinked
planetary boundaries (biosphere integrity, land-system change, freshwater use, nitrogen flows) and agricultural systems in an
internally consistent model framework, we here show that almost half of current global food production depends on planetary
boundary transgressions. Hotspot regions, mainly in Asia, even face simultaneous transgression of multiple underlying local
boundaries. If these boundaries were strictly respected, the present food system could provide a balanced diet (2,355 kcal per
capita per day) for 3.4 billion people only. However, as we also demonstrate, transformation towards more sustainable produc-
tion and consumption patterns could support 10.2 billion people within the planetary boundaries analysed. Key prerequisites
are spatially redistributed cropland, improved water–nutrient management, food waste reduction and dietary changes.
Content courtesy of Springer Nature, terms of use apply. Rights reserved
... The diminishing availability of water can have adverse effects on agricultural land in various regions worldwide, which poses a major obstacle to food production [4]. Given that agriculture is the primary consumer of water, it is likely to face conflicts with other water users in the future due to escalating demand [4,5]. In the of the suitability zone map for RWH. ...
... These steeper slopes are primarily concentrated in the northern portions of the study area ( Figure 9). The TWI map displays a range of values spanning from 1 to 25, which have been categorized into five distinct classes: 'Very High' (20)(21)(22)(23)(24)(25), 'High' (15)(16)(17)(18)(19)(20), 'Moderate' (10)(11)(12)(13)(14)(15), 'Low' (5-10), and 'Very Low' (1)(2)(3)(4)(5). Among these classes, the 'Very Low' TWI class claims the largest area, covering 4266.42 km 2 (28.75%), while the 'Very High' TWI class has the most limited coverage, accounting for just 321.66 km 2 (2.17%). ...
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Water scarcity is a prominent consequence of global climate change, presenting a significant challenge to the livelihoods of wide parts of the world, particularly in arid and semi-arid regions. This study focuses on Erbil Province in Iraq, where the dual effects of climate change and human activity have significantly depleted water resources in the past two decades. To address this challenge, rainwater harvesting (RWH) is explored as a viable solution. The purpose of this study is to make a suitability zone map that divides the study area into several classes based on the features of each area and its ability to collect rainwater. The map will then be used to find the best place to build different RWH structures. Seven different layers are used to make the RWH suitability zone map: rainfall, runoff, land use/cover (LU/LC), soil texture, slope, drainage density, and the Topographic Wetness Index (TWI). Each layer was assigned specific weights through the Analytical Hierarchy Process (AHP), considering its relevance to RWH. Results revealed four suitability classes: very highly suitable 1583.25 km2 (10.67%), highly suitable 4968.55 km2 (33.49%), moderately suitable 5295.65 km2 (35.69%), and lowly suitable 2989.66 km2 (20.15%). Notably, the suitability map highlights the northern and central regions as particularly suitable for RWH. Furthermore, the study suggested three suitable locations for constructing medium dams, six for check dams, and twenty-seven for farm ponds, according to the requirements of each type. These findings provide valuable insights for the strategic planning and effective management of water resources in the study area, offering potential solutions to the pressing challenges of water scarcity.
... Groundwater is heavily extracted in dry places, where irrigation accounts for a significant portion of both water extraction and water consumption worldwide [5,6]. Extreme heat and dryness have made water scarcity a major issue throughout the Arab world. ...
In recent decades, geophysical and remote sensing monitoring techniques have advanced to the point where they can be utilized. It is possible to investigate the spatiotemporal mass fluctuations induced by groundwater changes over the Southern Arabian Peninsula (SAP) by combining time-variable gravity data with land surface model outputs and rainfall data. Here are the findings: The average annual precipitation rates for the whole study region were 91.11, 87.6, and 96.61 mm yr − 1 during the entire period (2002-2021), period before 2013, and period after 2012, respectively. The southern and eastern parts (Zone I) of the investigated region show modest rainfall rates of 109.6, 105, and 117 mm yr − 1 during the whole period, period before 2013, and period after 2012, respectively. The Rub El Khali region (Zone II) is receiving lower precipitation rates of 54.6, 53.3, and 56.5 mm yr − 1 throughout the whole period, period before 2013, and period after 2012, respectively. Based on the three distinct gravity solutions, the average Terrestrial Water Storage (ΔTWS) values are computed through the entire period to be − 0.21 ± 0.011, − 0.15 ± 0.013, and − 0.32 ± 0.0107 cm yr − 1 for the whole study region, Zone of the southern and eastern regions, and Zone of Rub El Khali, respectively. The whole study region, Zone of the southern and eastern parts, and Zone of Rub El Khali are showing highly negative ΔTWS in the period before 2013, in comparison to slightly negative to slightly positive ΔTWS trends in period after 2012. The average annual change in groundwater storage for the entire study area was calculated at − 0.21 ± 0.011, − 0.29 ± 0.024, and − 0.091 ± 0.038 cm yr − 1 throughout the investigated period, period before 2013, and period after 2012, respectively. Zone of Rub El Khali is showing higher negative groundwater storage trend (ΔGWS) averaged at − 0.32 ± 0.104 cm yr − 1 throughout the investigated period, whereas Zone of southern and eastern regions is showing lower negative groundwater storage trend of − 0.15 ± 0.013 cm yr − 1. Most of the recharge rate occurs in Zone of the southern and eastern regions reaching up to + 0.77 ± 0.092 cm yr − 1 by taking the average groundwater withdrawal rate of + 0.92 ± 0.092 cm yr ¡1 during the whole period. This integrated approach is a valuable and economical method for more effectively assessing the variations of groundwater resources across wide areas.
... Yet, apart from their adaptation potential, the deployment of "waste-to-food", "waste-to-proteins" or "waste-to-nutrition" pathways is also increasingly promoted as a solution to mitigate global environmental impacts (Javourez et al., 2021;Piercy et al., 2022;Smetana et al., 2022). This is because current food system plays a predominant role in global planetary boundaries overshooting (Gerten et al., 2020), triggering the need to decrease the impacts of livestock production, by downsizing the share of animal-based food in global diets as well as reducing the impacts of feed production (Poore and Nemecek, 2018;Wilfart et al., 2019). Building on these observations, projects aiming to transform residual biomass streams into food and feed propose to decouple food production (majorly livestock production) from arable land (Alexander et al., 2017;Pikaar et al., 2018;Tallentire et al., 2018) and shorten nutrients cycles (Smetana et al., 2022). ...
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... With the forecast continued increase in world population, current rates of yield and production increases will not suffice, requiring resumption of the previous rate of > 2% annual increase (Horie et al. 2005). Such productivity gains under a sustainable food production scenario have been projected to be possible by improved soil fertility and nutrient supplying strategies, and by respecting four interlinked relevant planetary boundaries (N and P nutrition, biodiversity, and trace gas emissions/climate change; Gerten et al. 2020). Given the still large differences between experimental and farmers' actual yields (Mueller et al. 2012), this expected increase could be met by adopting technology innovations, foremost site-specific nutrient management strategies. ...
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... The exponentially growing demand for food and the need to maintain food production systems within planetary boundaries pose two serious challenges to global agricultural production 29 , which necessitate well-informed N management and a comprehensive understanding of N cycles 30,31 . This study utilized knowledge-based management practices such as slow-release N fertilizers and N application optimization strategies aligned with the 4R principles: right timing, right amount, right placement, and right product, to convert unnecessary N from farmers to higher productivity 32,33 . ...
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The dual implications of nitrogen (N) use raise concerns regarding future wheat production, economic profitability, and environmental protection in China. Here, a comprehensive and sequential knowledge-based strategy that combines regional target-oriented optimal N rates and management practices was devised; as well as exploring its perspectives for promoting agricultural sustainability. It was found that employing a multi-objective optimization strategy that coordinates various government departments can lead to a reduction of 18.7–21.9% in N fertilizer consumption and 25.4–30.5% in reactive N losses while maintaining wheat yields compared to conventional N management. Furthermore, a combination of N rate optimization and management practices based on the principles of right time, rate, placement, and product could save economic costs of about 0.18–1.65 billion US dollars. The new strategy offers an example of how high economic and environmental benefits can be achieved with regional N optimization management while ensuring food security to guide targeted agricultural interventions.
... However, we conceive "material power" also in a more extensive sense: how the inherited situation of the global food system creates dependencies and lock-ins that are hard to break and how this is reflected in the narrow options for action by many actors. One concrete example of such material power is dependence on industrial fertilizers: sudden disentanglement would create insurmountable problems (Kahiluoto et al. 2014, Clapp 2017, Gerten et al. 2020. ...
... For this reason, the Chinese government has implemented rigorous cropland protection policies, for example, the policy to balance the occupation and replenishment of arable land by providing a red line of 120 million hectares of cultivated land. However, the compensated cropland is mainly achieved through the occupation of forest and grassland and is accompanied by problems such as untimely compensation and yield quality decline of the compensated cropland (Chen et al., 2022b;Gerten et al., 2020). Therefore, sustainable agricultural development at the global-regional scale still faces significant challenges. ...
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Increase in anthropogenic activities proliferated the consumption of resources such as phosphorus; and increase the adverse environmental impacts especially eutrophication on water resources such as lakes. Nutrient recovery from domestic wastewaters to produce a fertiliser has been explored to address these challenges in the context of a sustainable circular nutrient economy. Life cycle assessment (LCA) was performed to holistically assess the impacts of integrating a nutrient recovery system on wastewater and water resource management using Laguna de Bay, Philippines as the geographical boundary. The inventory was developed based on the results of the emerging nutrient recovery reactor operations and the application of the recovered fertiliser on the agricultural crops. The LCA results for the proposed scenario showed environmental benefits of about 83.6% freshwater eutrophication, 102.5% terrestrial ecotoxicity, 26.9% water consumption, 100.7% mineral resource scarcity, while the global warming potential is 95.4% higher than the baseline scenario. Results imply policy review for septage management, system optimisation, and evaluation of alternative methods of wastewater management, in terms of life cycle thinking and sustainability across the globe.
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The well-established dynamical global vegetation, hydrology, and crop growth model LPJmL is extended with a terrestrial nitrogen cycle to account for nutrient limitations. In particular, processes of soil nitrogen dynamics, plant uptake, nitrogen allocation, response of photosynthesis and maintenance respiration to varying nitrogen concentrations in plant organs, and agricultural nitrogen management are included in the model. All new model features are described in full detail and the results of a global simulation of the historic past (1901–2009) are presented for evaluation of the model performance. We find that the implementation of nitrogen limitation significantly improves the simulation of global patterns of crop productivity. Regional differences in crop productivity, which had to be calibrated via a scaling of the maximum leaf area index, can now largely be reproduced by the model, except for regions where fertilizer inputs and climate conditions are not the yield-limiting factors. Furthermore, it can be shown that land use has a strong influence on nitrogen losses, increasing leaching by 93 %.
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The global impacts of food production Food is produced and processed by millions of farmers and intermediaries globally, with substantial associated environmental costs. Given the heterogeneity of producers, what is the best way to reduce food's environmental impacts? Poore and Nemecek consolidated data on the multiple environmental impacts of ∼38,000 farms producing 40 different agricultural goods around the world in a meta-analysis comparing various types of food production systems. The environmental cost of producing the same goods can be highly variable. However, this heterogeneity creates opportunities to target the small numbers of producers that have the most impact. Science , this issue p. 987
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The dynamic global vegetation model LPJmL4 is a process-based model that simulates climate and land use change impacts on the terrestrial biosphere, agricultural production, and the water and carbon cycle. Different versions of the model have been developed and applied to evaluate the role of natural and managed ecosystems in the Earth system and the potential impacts of global environmental change. A comprehensive model description of the new model version, LPJmL4, is provided in a companion paper (Schaphoff et al., 2018c). Here, we provide a full picture of the model performance, going beyond standard benchmark procedures and give hints on the strengths and shortcomings of the model to identify the need for further model improvement. Specifically, we evaluate LPJmL4 against various datasets from in situ measurement sites, satellite observations, and agricultural yield statistics. We apply a range of metrics to evaluate the quality of the model to simulate stocks and flows of carbon and water in natural and managed ecosystems at different temporal and spatial scales. We show that an advanced phenology scheme improves the simulation of seasonal fluctuations in the atmospheric CO2 concentration, while the permafrost scheme improves estimates of carbon stocks. The full LPJmL4 code including the new developments will be supplied open source through We hope that this will lead to new model developments and applications that improve the model performance and possibly build up a new understanding of the terrestrial biosphere.
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Supplying food for the anticipated global population of over 9 billion in 2050 under changing climate conditions is one of the major challenges of the 21st century. Agricultural expansion and intensification contributes to global environmental change and risks the long-term sustainability of the planet. It has been proposed that no more than 15% of the global ice-free land surface should be converted to cropland. Bioenergy production for land-based climate mitigation places additional pressure on limited land resources. Here we test normative targets of food supply and bioenergy production within the cropland planetary boundary using a global land-use model. The results suggest supplying the global population with adequate food is possible without cropland expansion exceeding the planetary boundary. Yet this requires an increase in food production, especially in developing countries, as well as a decrease in global crop yield gaps. However, under current assumptions of future food requirements, it was not possible to also produce significant amounts of first generation bioenergy without cropland expansion. These results suggest that meeting food and bioenergy demands within the planetary boundaries would need a shift away from current trends, for example, requiring major change in the demand-side of the food system or advancing biotechnologies.
Can the predicted rise in global food demand by 2050 be met sustainably? A modelling study suggests that a combination of interventions will be needed to tackle the associated environmental challenges. Meeting future food demand sustainably will require a range of interventions.