To tackle climate change, rethink our food systems

Shenggen Fan Kathleen Rogers
 A recent report warns that we must rethink our food system to avoid the most devastating impacts of deforestation, biodiversity loss and unchecked climate change.
Shenggen Fan Kathleen Rogers

The way we produce, consume and discard food is unsustainable. A recent report from an independent body of scientists warns that we must rethink our food system — and quickly — to avoid the most devastating impacts of deforestation, biodiversity loss and unchecked climate change.

While it’s not often recognized, the food industry is almost on par with fossil fuels as a driver of climate change. As the report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns, to reach the 2030 target of reducing emissions by 50 percent, we need more than reforms by the energy and transportation sectors; we must also reform our land use and agriculture practices.

Currently, the global food system is pushing our natural world to the breaking point: The production, distribution and consumption of food currently accounts for more than one-quarter of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. But by addressing food waste and emissions from animal agriculture, we can start to tackle this problem.

Livestock production is a leading cause of deforestation, water quality-degradation and air pollution. In fact, animal agriculture has such an enormous impact on the environment that if every American reduced their meat consumption by just 10 percent, we would save approximately 7.8 trillion gallons (29.5 trillion liters) of water. We’d also save 49 billion pounds (22 billion kg) of carbon dioxide every year — the equivalent of planting 1 billion trees.

What’s more, to the injury of food production, we add the insult of food waste: Globally, nearly a third of all food produced ends up as waste. That means we’re throwing away US$1 trillion, or about half of Africa’s GDP, every year. At our current rates, if food waste were a country, it would be the world’s third-largest emitter.

We need a new way forward. To ensure global food security and sustainable food practices in an ever-growing world, we need an approach that reexamines our global food systems through the lens of regional resources, economics and culture.

Reduce food waste

To start, the United States and other developed countries must use incentives to encourage companies to produce more sustainable food, including more plant-based options. Leaders must create policies that ensure low-income communities have access to affordable fruits and vegetables. And we all can do our part to reduce food waste, whether it’s in our company cafeterias or our own fridges.

Technology also plays a part. Developed countries should support and incentivize emerging innovative technologies in plant-based foods, as well as low-carbon meat production.

Additionally, developed countries should focus on retailer and consumer education to inform decisions about healthy and sustainable diets.

Developing countries, on the other hand, face high levels of undernutrition, as well as limited access to healthy foods. Many nutrient-dense foods (such as fruits, vegetables and quality meats) are highly perishable, often making prices significantly higher than ultra-processed, nutrient-poor and calorie-dense foods. The high cost of nutrient-dense foods creates a significant barrier to healthy diets, as seen in urban Malawi and many other countries.

By promoting enhanced production of healthy and nutritious foods while also improving markets in low-income countries, we can lower prices and increase accessibility of healthy and sustainable diets. Politicians can also tackle systemic inequalities by reshaping agricultural subsidies away from staple crops to healthy foods, as well as investing in infrastructure like rural roads, electricity, storage and cooling chain.

From top to bottom, people and partnerships will play a big role in this new approach. International participation and resource sharing can spread regional solutions across countries. And working for change at the ground level can help fight hunger and food inequality firsthand.

Our food system is broken, but not irrevocably so. It’s time to demand a new way forward. The challenges are enormous, but by understanding the problem and potential solutions, we can take urgent and profound changes in the ways we produce, consume and dispose of food.

Kathleen Rogers is president of Earth Day Network. Shenggen Fan is director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute and a Commissioner for the EAT-Lancet Commission. Copyright: American Forum.

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