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A New U.N. Report Calls for Urgent Environmental Action to Mitigate Premature Deaths and Other Threats

To get on track to achieve sustainability goals, the report outlines a series of changes to the global systems of food production, energy, and waste management.
View taken of lettuces on August 5th, 2009, in a field near Douvres-la-Delivrande, outside Caen, northwestern France.

Currently, a third of all edible food produced goes to waste.

The United Nations issued its sixth Global Environmental Outlook report on Wednesday, conveying the message that the world is not on track to meet goals to create a more sustainable future by 2030 or 2050, and that urgent action is required in order to not just meet global temperature goals set in the Paris Agreement, but to ensure they aren't rendered impossible.

In 2015, the U.N. developed 17 Sustainable Development Goals to address global challenges including climate, environmental degradation, and inequality by 2030. In 2016, the Paris Agreement entered into force with a goal to keep global temperature rise well below two degrees Celsius, and ideally below 1.5 degrees Celsius. To get on track to achieve these goals, the report outlines a series of changes to the global systems of food production, energy, and waste management.

The report calls for sweeping changes in our food system. Currently, a third of all edible food produced is wasted, with industrialized countries accounting for 56 percent of this waste. In addition, food production uses 50 percent of habitable land, and 75 percent of that land is used for meat production. Agricultural production also uses 70 percent of the world's water, according to the report.

Despite all of this waste, many areas of the world struggle with food security. With a rapidly expanding global population set to hit nine to 10 billion by 2050, the U.N. calls for policymakers to improve food system productivity by 50 percent. The report recommends technologies and practices that should be more widely used to increase food production and sustainability and reduce food insecurity in the developing world.

One of these technologies is precision agriculture, a method of farming that uses GPS data to increase efficiency by optimizing the amount of water and fertilizer needed for a section of crops and using a computerized system to make tractor movements more exact. The report also encourages reducing traditional livestock consumption and instead increasing production of plant-based meat alternatives and meat grown in vitro from cell cultures.

Genetic diversity is also declining, further threatening food security and the resilience of ecosystems. Such changes to biodiversity can have far-reaching impacts on wildlife and even lead to disease in humans, according to the report. Other factors like greenhouse gas emissions also affect the food system. Air and water pollution can lead to food contamination, and climate change will continue to disrupt the food supply with natural disasters like floods and droughts unless action is taken to mitigate these impacts, the report maintains.

The U.N. believes taking action to change worldwide food, energy, and waste management systems will prevent millions of premature deaths that would otherwise occur by 2050: According to the report, air pollution currently causes six to seven million deaths by disease annually.

"The report shows that policies and technologies already exist to fashion new development pathways that will avoid these risks and lead to health and prosperity for all people," co-chairs of the committee behind the report Joyeeta Gupta and Paul Ekins said in a press release. "What is currently lacking is the political will to implement policies and technologies at a sufficient speed and scale."

Policymakers will discuss issues raised in this report at the fourth United Nations Environmental Assembly this week in Nairobi, Kenya.