Empty shelves in groceries, panic buying, stockpiling and queuing for hours reminded us this year of something that we seem to forget: the importance and fragility of our food system. The pandemic should be a warning sign that we need to rethink and transform the global food supply chains to become more resilient, but also more sustainable.
A sustainable food system lies at the heart of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Currently, food systems are responsible for 70 per cent of the water extracted from nature, cause 60 per cent of biodiversity loss, and generate up to 35 per cent of human greenhouse gas emissions. In a very twisted way, food production is a large contributor to climate change, which is increasingly menacing food security.
Standing at the end of this value chain as a consumer, it can be hard to fully grasp the importance and urgency of addressing these problems. That’s why it’s crucial to raise awareness of how food reaches our plates and learning about the environmental consequences of our current food system.
Food production must change to reach Paris goals
The concentration of nitrous oxide in the atmosphere – a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide – has risen 20 per cent from pre-industrial levels and its growth has accelerated over recent decades.
“The dominant driver of the increase in atmospheric nitrous oxide comes from agriculture and the growing demand for food and feed for animals will further increase global nitrous oxide emissions,” explained Hanqin Tian, director of the International Centre for Climate and Global Change Research at Auburn University’s School of Forestry, lead author of a recent study undertaken by an international consortium of 57 scientists from 14 countries and 48 research institutions.
The highest growth rates in emissions are found in emerging economies, particularly Brazil, China and India, where crop production and livestock numbers have increased. The report highlights that current trends in nitrous oxide emissions are not compatible with pathways consistent to achieve the climate goals of the Paris Agreement.
“Current emissions are tracking global temperature increases above 3°C, twice the temperature target of the Paris Agreement,” said study co-author Robert Jackson, a professor from Stanford University and chair of the Global Carbon Project.
Farming and food production have generally received less attention when it comes to carbon-cutting policies than for instance energy production or transportation, while a recent study published in the Sience Journal showed that even if fossil fuel emissions were eliminated immediately, emissions from the global food system alone would make it impossible to limit warming to 1.5°C and difficult even to realise the 2°C target.
“All it would take for us to exceed the two-degree warming limit is for food emissions to remain on their path and one additional year of current fossil fuel emissions,” warns UC Santa Barbara ecology professor David Tilman in an interview with Science Daily. “And I guarantee you, we’re not going to stop fossil fuel emissions in a year.”
Feeding the world in a sustainable way
Although the outlook is not so bright, policies to reduce harmful emissions of the food system already exist. Within the European Green Deal framework, the European Commission recognised the importance of a healthy and sustainable food system, the reason why it launched the Farm to Fork Strategy: it addresses comprehensively the challenges of sustainable food systems and recognises the inextricable links between healthy people, healthy societies and a healthy planet.
Europe is also the only region in the world that has successfully reduced nitrous oxide emissions over the past two decades.
“Industrial and agricultural policies to reduce greenhouse gases and air pollution and to optimize fertilizer use efficiencies have proven to be effective,” said Wilfried Winiwarter, former director of the International Nitrogen Initiative’s European centre.
However, still in Europe agriculture is by far the hardest sector to abate because more than half of agriculture emissions come from raising animals for food and can’t be reduced without significant changes in meat consumption or technological breakthroughs.
“When we talk about global food systems, we are using a more holistic lens, expanding the conversation to include the entire value chain–not only production and consumption but also food processing, packaging, transport, retail and food services,” said James Lomax, a programme manager with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
“By considering the entire system, we are better positioned to understand problems and to address them, in a more connected and integrated way,” he added.
Integrated strategies are also at the heart of a recently published report of the Food, Agriculture, Biodiversity, Land-Use, and Energy (FABLE) Consortium. The report suggests that if we wish to avoid locking into unsustainable food and land-use systems and meet the objectives of the Paris Agreement we need to take coordinated actions across various fields of the food system, from food production, biodiversity, climate and diets.
“In 2020, the world has experienced unprecedented environmental, social, and economic crises, underscoring just how unsustainable current land use and food systems are”, pointed out FABLE consortium member Michael Obersteiner, an IIASA researcher and Director of the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University.
The pathways outlined in the report of FABLE cover freshwater, future climate-change impacts on crops, a richer discussion of biodiversity targets, and more detailed trade analysis. The report shows how countries can meet mid-century objectives on food security, healthy diets, greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity, forest conservation, and freshwater use by designing, implementing, and monitoring better policies.
Addressing the problems of our food system will be paramount to deliver on our climate commitments and while change will not be easy, the stakes are simply too high for inaction.