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To Address the Climate Crisis, We Must Completely Rethink How We Produce and Consume Food

Market-driven solutions won’t cut it

A panel at last month's climate summit gave welcome attention to agricultural emissions, but speakers failed to suggest adequate reforms. (Photo: Evaristo Sa/AFP/Getty Images)

A panel at last month's climate summit gave welcome attention to agricultural emissions, but speakers failed to suggest adequate reforms. (Photo: Evaristo Sa/AFP/Getty Images)

The clock on climate upheaval is ticking fast with little time to lose, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made frighteningly clear last week. “Limiting global warming to 1.5ºC would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society,” the October 8 report warned. Yet just one month earlier, the Global Climate Action Summit (GCAS) brushed over what may be the most critical “aspect of society,” making only marginal mention of the crisis’s top cause.

Food and agriculture represents the single-biggest producer of greenhouse gas emissions, so why isn't agricultural climate action gaining more attention?

Tucked away in a pastry-laden conference room in a downtown San Francisco office building, a “high-level roundtable” of international leaders discussed something pivotal to the fate of the planet yet sidelined by the summit: food and agriculture.

Led by New Zealand’s ambassador to the United States, Tim Groser, and top representatives from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Resources Institute and others, the roundtable posed the challenge, “How can we make agricultural climate action more attractive?”

Food and agriculture represents the single-biggest producer of greenhouse gas emissions—at between 19 and 29 percent including associated deforestation, more than any other sector in the global economy. Yet, “agriculture is always the last at the party,” noted Groser, former chair of the World Trade Organization agriculture negotiations process, during the roundtable. Other GCAS panels explored issues of deforestation, land use and food production systems—but these pivotal issues were largely absent from the summit’s main stage events, and were barely mentioned in the protests and teach-ins surrounding the summit.

The roundtable, hosted by the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, featured a dissonant blend of urgency and lack of clarity: There was no consensus around how to rapidly reduce food’s greenhouse gas emissions, which stem chiefly from industrial agriculture’s removal of forests and other carbon sinks, alongside ballooning meat and dairy production. Livestock production alone spews 14.5 percent of all the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

A failing food system

“The way we produce food is failing us,” said Zitouni Ould Dada, deputy director of the UN FAO’s climate and environment division, in an interview after the event. “The whole system of land use has to change. We need to produce food with the land we have.”

    The roundtable raised a host of food and climate crises and challenges:

  • In a survey of 174 countries by the World Resources Institute, just nine had targets for reducing methane emissions from their food production.
  • Despite heaps of evidence showing industrial livestock is a top climate threat, global meat and dairy production and consumption continue to soar.
  • Massive food waste is a major hunger and climate problem: according to the UN FAO, a full one-third of all food is wasted or lost, and “if food wastage were a country, it would be the third largest emitting country in the world.”

As the FAO’s Dada explained, “We are trying to get production to shift toward efficiency because we know there is so much food wastage, from the time you sow the food to the time you have it on your plate,” including long-distance transportation, storage and processing. “Instead of producing more, we can produce more efficiently.”

The roundtable clarified a key dilemma: with nations dependent on trade, exports and economic development to maintain economic growth—and that growth invariably spurring greater meat consumption—how can countries fill their economic coffers while slashing food-related emissions?

As the world’s top exporter of goat and sheep meat, and a major beef producer, New Zealand illustrates this tension between trade and emissions reduction. The far-flung island nation faces a “very acute problem when it comes to our emissions program,” Groser acknowledged.

But, with global meat consumption rising and livestock’s climate hoof-print clear, how would top beef exporters reduce their climate harm while maintaining income for those nations and their farmers? When this reporter posed the question to the roundtable, Groser dodged the core challenge of production and consumption. “Production is not the problem,” he responded. “The problem is the how, the sustainability of production.”

While debate persists between better meat and no meat, more sustainable ranching has been on the rise, including grass-fed, smaller-scale and rotational grazing systems. Scientists and activists continue to debate the emissions reductions and carbon storage potential of these alternatives, but there is little question that producing and consuming less livestock would reduce food’s climate impact. 

Unfortunately, the big picture of meat and dairy is grim. Global per capita meat consumption continues to rise (with the United States and other industrial “developed” nations leading the way)—and with it comes climate-wrecking deforestation, along with methane and nitrous oxide emissions.

When asked about using national policy such as subsidies or other incentives to propel more sustainable food production, the roundtable offered meager response. Groser said there are efforts in that direction, but he stressed the contradiction of governments trying to price carbon in the marketplace while also subsidizing carbon production.

For Groser, the dilemma exemplifies “the enormous sensitivity of agriculture” in climate reduction, particularly for nations that rely on agriculture and exports to survive. According to the EPA, agriculture comprises 9 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions—though given farming’s relatively small chunk of the U..S economy, “it is a disproportionately GHG-intensive activity,” the USDA Economic Research Service has noted. New Zealand, meanwhile, generates half of its emissions from agriculture, Ireland 30 percent, France 20 percent, and Uruguay around 80 percent, according to Groser. “There’s no incentive structure for anyone to worry about agriculture other than France, Ireland and New Zealand.”

Like the summit itself, the roundtable focused far more on market-driven approaches than on how governments can regulate or fundamentally change the market systems that require relentless growth and profits. Gail Work, CEO of One Earth Ventures, touted lab research suggesting “we can increase the size of cows and the volume of milk while reducing pollution.” Manish Bapna, executive vice president of the World Resources Institute, emphasized using “market forces” to sway corporate supply chains to address deforestation—but, he added, “what we’ve seen is not nearly enough progress.” Any notion of the public sector spurring or supporting more rapid change was missing from the roundtable conversation.

As the latest IPCC report spells out, aggressively tackling the climate crisis would have “clear benefits to people and natural ecosystems,” and “could go hand in hand with ensuring a more sustainable and equitable society.” While given short shrift by the climate summit and the movement  protests surrounding it, critical efforts are afoot to shrink food’s outsized role in climate change. From institutions such as schools and hospitals reducing their meat consumption, to global farmer movements pushing agroecology farming systems that boost resiliency while reducing emissions, there are signs of hope.

The chief question is whether this progress can be radically and rapidly expanded.  For that to happen, the issue must be more heartily embraced by high-profile climate summits, world governments and the climate movement, as a central component of both the crisis and its solutions.

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Christopher D. Cook

Christopher D. Cook

Christopher D. Cook is an award-winning journalist and author of Diet for a Dead Planet: Big Business and the Coming Food Crisis. Cook has written for Harper's, The Economist, Mother Jones, The Christian Science Monitor and elsewhere. See more of his work at www.christopherdcook.com.

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