Illustrated image of farmer overlooking fields with world maps superimposed

Tackling Climate Change and Global Hunger

Feed everyone or save the planet? Here’s how we can do both.

By David A. Taylor • Illustrations by Davide Bonazzi

One day in 1989, Martin Bloem was on his way to work when he saw something he would never forget.

He was living in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and working for Helen Keller International. Born in Soesterberg, Netherlands, to parents from Indonesia, Bloem had spent his career in international health. He’d witnessed famine and emergency room crises, but the sight of a 4-year-old girl that day stopped him. She was about his son’s age. She stood on the sidewalk in Dhaka holding her baby brother in her thin arms. 

The chasm between her life and his son’s brought him to tears. “You see many things, but these key moments stay with you,” he says. “And those moments change the way you see.”

The image of that girl sometimes comes back to him as he ponders her fate and those of millions of others in developing countries wracked by malnutrition and threatened by the climate crisis. Now an international food expert and director of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, Bloem, MD, PhD, is focused on what he sees as one of the key challenges of our age: improving the diets of the world’s malnourished while still resolving the climate crisis. 

Bloem is actually optimistic. 

Global Dilemma

Humanity has reached an epochal crossroads. According to the World Bank, the climate crisis could push 100 million more people worldwide into poverty by 2030. By 2050, it could force up to 150 million people to become climate migrants. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the UN body that has monitored climate change since 1988, has reported that global temperatures are on track to rise by at least 1.5 degrees Celsius between 2030 and 2052, leading to extreme weather, destroyed ecosystems, water scarcity, and reduced crop production, among other devastating effects. Changing that scenario will require cutting carbon pollution by 45% by 2030 and reducing it to zero by 2050. Current projections put us far from reaching that target. Climate change is already worsening floods, drought, and other extreme weather events and disrupting the global food supply. And increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reduces food’s nutritional value, exacerbating the hunger crisis. 

At the same time, human losses from malnutrition globally remain high. Stunting and undernutrition cause cognitive effects that put lifelong limits on the horizons for 156 million children worldwide (one in four children under age 5). Improving nutrition in the early years is one of the smartest ways a country can break the cycle of poverty, boost productivity, and address inequality, according to the World Bank. Yet producing more food by current methods will also produce more greenhouse gases.

So, how can we tackle climate change and meet the world’s nutritional needs at the same time?

That question lies at the heart of a new study by Bloem and his coauthors.

One Size Doesn’t Fit All

In January 2019, the EAT-Lancet Commission released a report recommending a diet designed to improve human health and reduce the environmental impact of food production. It reflected broad consensus that a meat-heavy diet is bad for both human health and the planet. Allowing for flexibility within food groups, the report’s recommended “planetary health diet” aimed to increase consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes while reducing reliance on food from animals.

The EAT-Lancet’s recommended diet was simple and flexible, but Bloem and his colleagues believed that a single global diet could not address the needs of every country—especially LMICs. They recognized that the context for each country is unique, that dietary recommendations must reflect cultural factors as well the challenges (e.g. poverty, hunger, food availability, health) that vary from country to country. Furthermore, they wanted to see if improved local diets could address both challenges—improving nutrition and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

The result was a pathbreaking paper in Global Environmental Change published in September 2019. In it, the authors recognize two major patterns in places where the current diet isn’t meeting the needs of the population. First, people in the U.S. and other high-income countries typically consume more calories and protein than they need on a daily basis. That overconsumption brings the risk of chronic conditions such as obesity and diabetes. In many low- and middle-income countries, on the other hand, the main problem is underconsumption of energy and protein. 

Complicating matters, a growing number of countries are simultaneously experiencing both over- and undernutrition. In economically developing countries, people are adopting a diet that’s more and more heavy on processed foods, fat, and sugar. Those countries still need to tackle undernutrition, even as they face higher rates of obesity and heart disease. This fact was reinforced in December 2019 by a WHO special report in The Lancet that showed that more than a third of LMICs experience both under- and overnutrition. “We are facing a new nutrition reality,” lead author Francesco Branca, director of WHO’s Department of Nutrition for Health and Development, told UN News. “All forms of malnutrition have a common denominator—food systems that fail to provide all people with healthy, safe, affordable, and sustainable diets.”

“We’re tackling multiple global problems simultaneously,” says Keeve Nachman, PhD ’06, MHS ’01, an assistant professor in Environmental Health and Engineering and senior author of the paper. “These problems manifest in different ways and require solutions specific to countries. Context is everything, and the food production policies for each country must reflect that.” 

Stylized graph depicting decreasing climate and increasing dietary needs

Balancing Act

Nachman and Bloem say that the first step to solving both the climate crisis and global malnutrition is quantifying the climate implications of proper nutrition. Their study therefore modeled the environmental impacts of nine plant-forward diets in 140 countries, using country-specific data. (A plant-forward diet emphasizes plant-based foods but is not limited to them.) The nine diets in the study range from vegan to one meatless day per week. Then they suggested a plan at the country level that addresses environmental impact and climate change globally. 

The study explains that, in order to adequately nourish their populations, many LMICs need to increase consumption of calories and protein. Because this requires the increased production of key proteins, such as eggs, fish, and milk, even the adoption of healthy diets would involve net increases in global greenhouse gas emissions. To balance that environmental impact, the U.S. and Europe will need to shift away from their heavy reliance on meat. Livestock accounts for about 15% of GHG emissions. That’s due to food animal emissions of methane, a significant GHG, and to food production methods that generate greater GHG emissions, such as transporting feed and destroying forests to create pastures. 

Recognizing these variables sets the stage for meaningful change at the country level, says Chris Field, PhD, professor of Earth System Science at Stanford University and former cochair of the IPCC Working Group II. “The food system, land use, and food broadly have many difficult-to-address components,” says Field. “We don’t necessarily have to have all of the solutions to everything in place immediately.” 

Field adds: “We have an overriding responsibility to enable nutritious diets to come forward around the world.”

Supply and Demand

So is the answer to the nutrition-climate puzzle a jigsaw of country-specific diets? 

“Ultimately, it is a matter of supply and demand,” says Saskia de Pee, PhD, MSc, a senior nutrition adviser with the UN World Food Programme and coauthor. “It’s consumers making more conscious choices, and others helping to steer those choices.” 

Rather than prescribing solutions, the researchers want to unlock creativity for devising them. Bloem points to movements such as Meatless Monday, for which CLF provides technical assistance. Since 2003, this campaign has encouraged people in more than 40 countries to go meatless one day a week for their health and the planet’s health. “It’s not telling you what to do,” he says. “But you need to pick something to eat that Monday and also have it be healthy.” Meatless Monday has spawned discussion, recipes, and videos supporting people’s creativity—and demand for healthy food. 

Food companies are demonstrating interest in more healthy and climate-friendly food solutions. Some of the biggest names in the international food industry acknowledge the need for change. “There used to be a very clear linkage between food producers, industry members, and government regulators in the public dialogue around food,” says Nigel Hughes, DPhil, senior vice president for Global Research and Development for Kellogg, the multinational food company based in Michigan. He says that divisive politics have made such dialogue “more challenging in recent years,” but he sees promise in collaboration centered on studies like Bloem’s. Hughes also points to progress in the work of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development on food and agriculture. It started a dedicated program on plant diversity, and, with the Gates Foundation, is looking at affordable alternatives to meat, such as pulses and soy, that can appeal to emerging markets.

“The need to meet protein requirements does not mean that we should, or need to, endorse the industrial model of food animal production currently expanding worldwide,” says Bloem. Rather, we must make sure that production of eggs and milk—foods that provide crucial nutrients, especially for children—incorporates agro-ecological principles and is sustainable. “I believe that the demand side in the world is changing,” Bloem says, with consumers insisting on environmentally friendly foods. At international meetings, experts acknowledge a generational shift in demand. Young people especially are committing to more sustainably produced food and to addressing climate change. Research shows millennials are willing to pay more for a healthy and sustainable diet. 

“Food is sexy today,” Hughes agrees. “People around the world are really interested in engaging with food, certainly in a way in which we weren’t 15 or 20 years ago.”

Epilogue: Gaming the Food System

Last summer, Bloem started talking with the game developers at Food Lab Accelerator at Google about working together. Now the developers are adapting the parameters of food choices from Bloem and his coauthors’ research into a platform for everyone from schoolchildren to grandparents
to explore. 

FOODPLAY, an online game scheduled to launch in April, aims to make fun the choices that go into shaping a diet that is both nutritious and climate friendly. The game’s beta version, designed to be played on smartphones and tablets, focuses a different lens for each of four country-based scenarios: For Norway, the focus is sustainability; for Brazil, local, whole foods; for Canada, plant-forward options. The Indonesia module spotlights the situation of developing countries and especially the diets of children.

“You pick an individual, [and] you make choices for that person where he or she lives,” explains the World Food Programme’s de Pee. Players wrestle with choices faced by a teenage girl in Indonesia’s capital, for example: You walk through the market and decide what foods she will buy. You go to school and consider her food choices there. Your score at the end reflects your choices’ impacts on health, climate, environment, and the culture. You can click to learn more about each. 

A second phase of game development “will add scientifically rigorous analysis for the diets in FOODPLAY,” says Becky Ramsing, a senior program officer with CLF, “and expand the game to include more diets.”

The game, Bloem says, “makes the translation of this paper in a more communications-friendly way. So I’m really excited about that.”

The potential for technological assistance, the change in attitudes to food, the recognition of the challenge presented by climate change—all mark an auspicious shift that’s similar to others Bloem has seen in his career. In the dozen years he spent working to address HIV and AIDS, for example, he saw HIV infection transformed from a death sentence to a treatable condition. 

“When I look at the tremendous success we’ve had in HIV/AIDS, which was a very complicated problem that affected the entire world, rich and poor, I feel energized about our ability to also solve some food system problems, especially with regard to its contribution to climate change,” he says. 

As with HIV, these solutions require collaboration across all sectors, public and private. 

“We’ll need to think long-term,” says Bloem, “but we must also act urgently.”