Wholesome meals techniques for a wholesome planet
We all have to eat. But the way we grow, harvest, process, transport, prepare and consume food has a profound impact on everything on the planet, from climate to biodiversity to water.
A comprehensive new study finds that food systems are responsible for about a third of global greenhouse gas emissions. The study in Nature Food by researchers from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the Joint Research Center of the European Commission includes a database that examines each stage of the global food chain from 1990 to 2015 by sector, greenhouse gas and country.
Most of the emissions, 71 percent, come from agriculture and related land use and land use change, including about 39 percent from early stages – agriculture, aquaculture, fisheries, and fertilizer use – and a third from agricultural land use and land use change. mainly due to carbon losses from deforestation and soil degradation, including the destruction of peatlands.
The rest comes from the supply chain: “Retail, transportation, consumption, fuel production, waste management, industrial processes and packaging.” In industrialized countries, these downstream sectors make up a larger proportion on average.
Agriculture also occupies half of the habitable area in the world. Of that, livestock (including land for growing feed) accounts for 77 percent, while they produce only 18 percent of the world calories and 37 percent of all protein. This continues to increase with population growth: global food production rose by 40 percent between 1990 and 2015. Switching to a more plant-based diet can therefore save habitats and natural spaces and at the same time reduce emissions.
Although the study shows that the percentage of total emissions from food systems has decreased, it is only because emissions from other sources – mainly the burning of oil, gas and coal for energy – have increased.
Research has a silver lining. Sonja Vermeulen, program director of the international agricultural research advisory group, told Carbon Brief that it shows that we can feed the world’s eight billion people if we tackle the problems.
“It is theoretically possible that everyone in the world can eat healthy and culturally appropriate, despite population growth, without exceeding the planetary limits for carbon, biodiversity, nitrogen, phosphorus and water,” she said. “But that will require a lot of technical and political effort.” (Vermeulen was not involved in the study.)
She noted that solving the climate crisis means tackling emissions not only from agriculture (including switching to more plant-based diets), but also from energy and transport.
Although a large part of transport and energy emissions are carbon dioxide from burning coal, oil and gas, food systems are more complex. CO2 only accounts for half of all food-related emissions. Methane makes up 35 percent – mainly from agriculture, livestock and rice production, and waste treatment. Methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, but it remains in the atmosphere for a shorter period of time, so reducing these emissions can have quick effects.
Interestingly, packaging causes more emissions than “food miles” – 5.4 versus 4.8 percent.
The study also found that the six largest economies are responsible for 51 percent of global food system emissions: China (13.5 percent), Indonesia (8.8 percent), the United States (8.2 percent), Brazil (7th , 4 percent), the European Union (6.7 percent) and India (6.3 percent).
The research “also highlights how global food systems are becoming more energy-intensive, reflecting trends in retail, packaging, transportation and processing sectors whose emissions are rising rapidly in some developing countries,” according to the FAO. Strong fluorinated greenhouse gases used in refrigeration and other industrial applications are increasing rapidly in developed countries.
This database helps identify problems and their causes – an important step in solving them. A lot of other research points to solutions.
Less disruptive agriculture is key. This can be achieved through restorative agriculture to produce food in a way that does not deplete soils and destroy carbon sinks, and by moving away from a diet that depends heavily on animals such as cattle and sheep, which require lots of land and water a lot of methane produce produce emissions. (Plant-centered nutrition is also healthier.)
Reducing emissions from packaging, transport, storage and processing as well as reducing food waste is just as important.
We have many options for solving the climate crisis. Food systems are a big piece of the puzzle. We have to start making changes now!
David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author, and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Writer and Editor Ian Hanington.