Despite producing more than enough calories needed to feed each person on earth, 830 million people have insufficient access to food. Many suffer from malnutrition-related conditions, including stunting, wasting, and micronutrient deficiencies. Meanwhile, obesity and chronic diet-related diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease present an additional concern, creating the dual burden of malnutrition.
While finding hunger solutions, we must also consider the urgent threat of global climate change. The problem is complex, as the food system is both a leading cause of climate change and an industry deeply impacted by its effects.
Relieving both of these problems simultaneously is a difficult task. Luckily, there are many ways to build a healthy and sustainable diet, and many innovations at our fingertips to help get us there. The following “win-win” plant-powered solutions serve both human health and the environment and have use across a variety of contexts. If applied on a global scale, these innovations could help lead a path toward healthful, sustainable food systems in the future.
1. Swapping protein
It is well-known that meat, particularly livestock meats, have some of the largest carbon and water footprints of all foods, representing 14.5% of all global greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). Red and processed meats also have been linked to increased risks of cancer and cardiovascular disease. But there are other ways to consume protein. Plant-based proteins including legumes, nuts, and whole grains are far less carbon- and water-intensive than animal proteins and offer plenty of health benefits, including lower rates of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. A shift from meat to less processed plant proteins will remain important moving forward.
2. Focusing on whole plant foods
Fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains are all micronutrient-dense foods, filled with powerful plant compounds, including cancer-fighting flavonoids and heart-friendly plant sterols. Their high levels of dietary fiber provide fullness while lowering the risk of various chronic diseases, such as stroke, hypertension, and diabetes. Fruits and vegetables vary in their water and carbon use, but are generally far less harmful to the environment than animal-based foods, especially when planned according to ideal growing seasons and delivered to consumers locally whenever possible.
3. Algae as food
Although algae have been consumed by humans for thousands of years, large scale adoption of algae as food has not taken off fully. However, it should. Algae could offer sustainably sourced protein and vitamin B-12, an essential micronutrient primarily found in animal-based foods, offering a valuable source of nutrition for those shifting toward a sustainable plant-based diet. Algae also could be considered as an alternative to seafood as a source of DHA and EPA while helping decrease the current harm caused to the oceans by overfishing. The humble plant also contains a large amount of iodine, a mineral that ranks among the leading micronutrient deficiencies in the world. Scaling up nori (dried green and purple laver) and red algae production is worth considering for planetary and human health.
Biotechnology (such as the use of genetically modified organisms, commonly known as GMOs) is a powerful tool that may offer solutions to various malnutrition-related problems. For example, biotechnology can be used to address many micronutrient deficiencies of public health concern, including Vitamin A, iodine, iron, and zinc, all of which already have been implemented into staple crops such as rice and proved effective in reducing rates of deficiencies. Also, biotechnology has helped create more sustainable and resilient crops better equipped to deal with an increasingly unpredictable climate, dwindling water supplies, and extreme weather events, and offers potential to decrease reliance on harmful pesticides.
5. Hydroponics and fortification
Hydroponic farming (also known as vertical farming) allows for the cultivation of large amounts of plant-foods, and is uniquely adaptable in urban settings, thereby slashing fresh food mileage and emissions in areas of high demand but little agricultural landscape. In addition to its high productivity and efficient water usage, hydrophobic farming offers opportunities for plant-food fortification, offering an additional way to combat micronutrient deficiencies and encourage fresh, plant-based food consumption at a larger, less resource-intensive scale.
6. Replacing sugar crops with more diverse plant crops
Consumption of added sugar is associated with increased rates of obesity, diabetes, and dental caries, and offer little nutritive value besides calorie density. High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), often found in soft drinks and packaged foods, is also associated with elevated risks of cardiovascular disease. Sugar and HFCS-full products are cheap, highly accessible, and supported by subsidies and tariffs. As a result, much land is devoted to corn production, limiting land available for other crops and threatening agricultural diversity. Ending sugar subsidies and replacing them with other fruit and vegetable subsidies could benefit human health and encourage crop diversity, expanding the variety of plants we grow and consume, which is important for long-term agriculture and dietary well-being.
7. Widespread use of low-water, highly nutritious fruit crops
There are many low-resource, weather-resistant, food-bearing plants that are not widely used now. For example, the Moringa oleifera, shown above, is a fast-growing, drought-resistant tree native to tropical South Asia. It produces high volumes of nutritious fruits and edible leaves, and its kernels can be used to produce oil. Artocarpus altilis (‘breadfruit’), is another hearty, fast-growing species of flowering tree that produces edible fruits rich in protein, vitamins, and minerals, and requires little fertilizer or pesticides. While these plants and others like them already are used in some areas to alleviate malnutrition, more widespread use is worth exploring.
Solving global hunger in a sustainable way will be a real challenge. However, starting with little “win-win” solutions can help guide a path forward to create a more sustainable, nutritious future for all. From algae to breadfruit to biotechnology, focusing on expanding innovations and taking full advantage of the power of plants can lead to improved planetary and human health moving forward.