Scientists have applied the British cycling team’s strategy of marginal gains to the global food system as part of efforts to reduce climate change.
Researchers believe making multiple small changes can lead to significant effects overall and help free up a fifth of the world’s agricultural land, which could also improve biodiversity.
The theory was introduced by Sir Dave Brailsford after he became performance director of the British cycling team in 2003 and has been credited for the Olympic success which followed.
He believed that if it was possible to make a 1% improvement in a range of areas, the cumulative gains would become significant.
Scientists now say that steps such as reducing food waste, tweaking diets and improving the efficiency of food production could reduce the area needed to feed the planet by at least 21%.
Peter Alexander, of the University of Edinburgh’s school of geosciences, who led the study, said: “The current system is failing to deliver the food we need to be healthy and is doing so in a way that is causing a crisis for biodiversity and contributing to climate change.
“While a transformational change is required, we need an approach that is achievable in practice.
“A vegan or vegetarian diet isn’t likely to be adopted by everyone and we think a set of small steps in the right directions will be more likely to be adopted and ultimately successful, and will go a substantial way to reducing the negative outcomes.”
Altering diets in developed nations was found to have the greatest potential to reduce the impact of food production.
The report – by scientists from the University of Edinburgh and the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology – suggests small changes such as eating slightly less meat, substituting chicken or pork for beef and lamb, as well as cutting transport and processing losses.
Experts also say changes are needed to continue to provide nutritional food without damaging the environment.
They believe freeing up areas currently used to grow crops and keep livestock could aid conservation efforts and improve biodiversity.
Other proposals include increasing agricultural yields, greater consumption of insects, plant-based imitation meat and lab-grown meat.
Mark Rounsevell, of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology and the University of Edinburgh, said: “Recent reports have suggested a single global diet as healthy and environmentally sustainable, ignoring important differences between countries and regions, including, for example, the need to increase protein consumption in some developing countries.
“Our results show that in places like Europe and the US, consumers can play the biggest role in reducing environmental harm through dietary change, while in less developed countries increasing production efficiency is more important.”