When too much isn't enough: Does current food production meet global nutritional needs?

PLoS One. 2018 Oct 23;13(10):e0205683. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0205683. eCollection 2018.


Sustainably feeding the next generation is often described as one of the most pressing "grand challenges" facing the 21st century. Generally, scholars propose addressing this problem by increasing agricultural production, investing in technology to boost yields, changing diets, or reducing food waste. In this paper, we explore whether global food production is nutritionally balanced by comparing the diet that nutritionists recommend versus global agricultural production statistics. Results show that the global agricultural system currently overproduces grains, fats, and sugars while production of fruits and vegetables and protein is not sufficient to meet the nutritional needs of the current population. Correcting this imbalance could reduce the amount of arable land used by agriculture by 51 million ha globally but would increase total land used for agriculture by 407 million ha and increase greenhouse gas emissions. For a growing population, our calculations suggest that the only way to eat a nutritionally balanced diet, save land and reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to consume and produce more fruits and vegetables as well as transition to diets higher in plant-based protein. Such a move will help protect habitats and help meet the Sustainable Development Goals.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Agriculture / methods
  • Agriculture / statistics & numerical data*
  • Conservation of Natural Resources
  • Crops, Agricultural / supply & distribution*
  • Feeding Behavior / physiology*
  • Food Supply / statistics & numerical data*
  • Greenhouse Gases / adverse effects
  • Humans
  • Nutritional Requirements / physiology*
  • Population Growth*
  • Sustainable Development


  • Greenhouse Gases

Grant support

This work was supported by Food from thought: Agricultural Systems for a Healthy Planet Initiative, by the Canada First Research Excellent Fund. Grant number 000054 to MC. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.