CORDIS - EU research results

Respecting safe operating spaces: opportunities to meet future food demand with sustainable use of water and land resources

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - SOS.aquaterra (Respecting safe operating spaces: opportunities to meet future food demand with sustainable use of water and land resources)

Reporting period: 2022-06-01 to 2023-11-30

Although the human population has quadrupled over the past century, per capita food availability is globally higher than ever – at the expense of the environment. The ways we currently produce and consume food are based largely on environmentally unsustainable practices, and are a prime cause of the present, significant transgressions of planetary boundaries – i.e. limits to nine interacting Earth system processes that must be respected in order to avoid pushing our planet outside a safe operating space for humanity. Projected population growth and climate change will further add to the challenge of feeding the planet sustainably.

SOS.aquaterra takes up this challenge by identifying socio-economically feasible measures to meet future food demand that respect the key planetary boundaries for food production: water, land, nutrients and biosphere integrity. We develop a novel integrated modelling framework and data analysis methods that exploit the rapidly increasing open global spatiotemporal datasets together and outputs from global agrological and hydrological models.

The overall objectives of the project are:
1. To develop a comprehensive and integrated model to estimate local thresholds for water-land- nutrient-biosphere integrity planetary boundaries and to quantify the safe operating space in future conditions.
2. To quantitatively assess the combined potential of innovative and conventional food opportunities within the safe operating space defined by the planetary boundaries.
3. To assess the feasibility of future food opportunities by using information on how food solutions have been used in the past.

Instead of assessing planetary boundaries (PBs) separately, our approach recognises the interactions, feedbacks and potential trade-offs between the PB processes. The second novelty of the SOS.aquaterra project is an integrated food system model, which aims for systemic understanding of the entire global food system including trade. With our integrated modelling system, we will be able to estimate, for the first time, the combined potential of conventional measures (diet change, food loss reduction, yield gap closure, and trade) and future innovations (e.g. vertical farming and alternative protein sources) to sustainably meet the future food demand at sub-national level.
We have been working towards these goals over the past 2.5 years and have developed various novel methodologies – as well as extended the current knowledge in many fronts – towards our overall objectives. The most significant achievements are listed below.

Food production within planetary boundaries: In the project, we have been exploring various opportunities to both meet the growing need for food as well as the environmental goals to stay within planetary boundaries. In ( we were part of a team that developed a novel modelling scheme that allowed us to estimate the amount of food that could be produced within the key planetary boundaries for food production. We found that within the current agricultural practices, only 3.4 billion could be fed within the planetary boundaries. From there, with sustainable agricultural transition, including yield gap closure, diet change and food loss reduction, we showed that food could be sustainably produced for ca 10 billion people.

Dynamic global food system model Aalto OptoFood: As one key part of the project, we have been developing a novel dynamic global food system model. This allows us to explore the impact of various future opportunities towards a more sustainable food supply. With that model, we are, for example, able to assess the food supply transition from a diet change perspective ( The model, called Aalto OptoFood, is the first global model that dynamically incorporates the different parts of the food system, including the by-product use for animal feed, pastures, and crop production for both human food and animal feed. With the model, we were able to show that a reduction of only 20% in animal protein decreases water consumption by around 80% of the maximum reduction potential.

Safe climatic space: Using the novel Safe climatic space -method (see above), we showed that a high emission scenario (+5°C) could force nearly one-third of global food crop production and over one-third of livestock production beyond this safe space by 2081–2100, and thus conditions in where food is not currently grown ( Our findings thus reinforce existing studies showing that if warming cannot be limited to 1.5–2°C, humanity will be forced into a new era in which past experience is of reduced validity and uncertainties increase dramatically.

Interactions between planetary boundaries: Here, we aimed to broaden the scope of exploring the important Earth system interactions (30), and thus considerably expanded the understanding of the connections among them. We were able to do this with a well-structured expert knowledge elicitation. This allowed us to overcome the limitations of existing work, which are caused by either lack of numerical models or insufficient literature. We identified and quantified a wide array of Earth system processes interactions, some of which are not previously documented in the Earth system literature. Additionally, based on the expert inputs, we were able to create a network of mechanisms mediating the identified interactions.

Untapped power of side products: Here, we examined the potential of replacing the livestock feed parts that are competing with human food supply with current food system by-products and residues ( We quantified this for the first time globally so that all the food system components (crop, livestock, aquaculture production, as well as wild fisheries) were included in the analysis. We showed that this change in animal feed composition could theoretically lead to considerable upsurge in global food supply, as currently foodstuff used for feed could be directly used by humans. This would mean up to 11-17% increase in terms of kcal and 11-15% in terms of proteins.
The progress beyond the state of the art includes the following issues:

Food production within planetary boundaries: This is the first study to assess the impact of multiple planetary boundaries on global food production with novel modelling setup ( We were able to first demonstrate how much food is possible to grow in each 50 km x 50 km grid cell sustainably within the planetary boundaries. Then we assessed how much this could be increased sustainably using opportunities such as yield gap closure, diet change and food loss reduction. The study considerably advanced the understanding in sustainable agriculture.

Dynamic global food system model Aalto OptoFood: In this work, we developed the first dynamic global food system model that is able to combine all food system sectors together, as well as dynamically reallocate the land use based on selected criteria when, for example, diet is changed towards a less meat-intensive one and land is freed from feed production and pasture ( This study goes beyond the state of the art in various aspects and shows that already modest changes in diet could yield considerable resources savings. At the same time, we were able to show that part of the livestock (roughly 40-50%) could be rather sustainable from a water-use point of view.

Safe climatic space: We developed a novel method to first assess the safe climatic space for current food production globally using three climatic variables (precipitation, temperature and aridity), and then mapped the areas that are in danger of being pushed out from this safe space due to climate change by end of the century ( This is the first study to define local safe climatic spaces for food production, and thus advances considerably the current understanding of the potential climate change impacts on agriculture.

Interactions between planetary boundaries: Here, we quantified for the first time the interaction strengths between the key earth system processes for food production ( This information is very important for assessing the safe operating space for food production as the impacted processes are highly interlinked. Not taking these interactions into account in these assessments might lead to overly optimistic scenarios, as shown in recent literature. Our work quantified several interactions that were not previously accounted for, and additionally we were able to create a network of mechanisms mediating the identified interactions. These outputs can greatly support the earth system modelling, sustainability assessments of food production, as well as in quantifying safe operating space for humanity.

By end of the project, we expect to be able to achieve following results:
- Develop a method to define the local safe operating space for food production globally, taking into account the interactions between the key earth system processes impacting on this safe space;
- Use our dynamic global food system model to estimate how much food we could sustainably grow within this safe space when we apply the combined potential of food opportunities globally (e.g. yield gap closure, increased use of by-products for animal feed, diet change, reduced food losses, cultured meat, etc.);
- Link these opportunities to social feasibility so that we are able to determine which opportunities are feasible in each location.
Project overall structure and aims