When I was a child, Christmas holiday festivities were always food-rich occasions. My paternal Polish grandparents hosted Christmas Eve, and 12 different dishes were served that represented the 12 disciples of Jesus Christ, the 12 months in a year, and the lucky number in Polish culture. On Christmas Day, we turned our attentions eventually past Santa’s visit to a reprise of the Thanksgiving menu, with turkey, ham, mashed potatoes, squash, and pies calling to us from the kitchen.
It didn’t occur to us who enjoyed these feasts or to any of the exhausted maternal cooks that these special occasion foods contained a significant carbon footprint. A combination of the production, packaging, storage, transportation, modification, quality control, and other related logistics contributed then and still contributes now to high carbon footprints, especially for animal-based proteins. Such an animal-based carbon footprint is directly linked to climate pollution, which causes environmental issues and food security to become common concerns worldwide.
This year’s COP was understood to be the first “Food COP,” and it focused a great deal of time and attention to the link between food production and the climate. Even with the newfound recognition, however, the food system transition was not part of high-level end-of-session negotiations.
However, Plant Based Treaty’s Safe and Just report launched at COP28 during Food Agriculture and Water Day. It is a must-read, as it critiques the food system’s impact on our planetary boundaries, food security, Indigenous protection, interspecies justice, intra- and intergenerational justice, health, and greening cities.
Such a heightened consciousness is more important than ever, as food systems are responsible for a third of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Specifically:
- 57% of GHGs associated with agricultural production are caused by animal farming.
- Livestock production accounts for roughly 32% of methane emissions, a “superheater” greenhouse gas that is 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20 year period.
- Reducing industrial animal agriculture in the next 7 years gives us a real chance at slowing down and limiting climate chaos.
Shouldn’t policies reward low emission food tech over market-friendly interventions and voluntary initiatives? Food solutions should call into question “Big Ag’s flawed model of industrial agriculture that is failing our global food system,” according to Sophie Nodzenski of Common Dreams. The author calls for food technologies to shift so that:
- decision makers adopt ambitious solutions and set themselves specific targets for different GHGs, such as methane or nitrous oxide;
- new animal factory farms are halted;
- Global North countries encourage large segments of the population to change to diets that include more plant-based food and less animal protein;
- concrete planning introducesa just transition for farmers trapped in exploitative relationships with Big Livestock;
- subsidies support a transition towards agroecological farming practices; and,
- vibrant rural communities with more farms and less livestock benefit from biodiversity and the climate.
Agroecology is exactly such a community-led approach to production. It integrates local, indigenous, and scientific knowledge and practices to enhance biodiversity, sustain ecosystems, and center decision-making on farmers. It helps to counter agriculture’s ignominious place as the main driver of water scarcity globally, as 70% of the water that humans use goes to produce food, primarily through crop irrigation and feeding livestock. At present, a quarter of the world’s crops are irrigated, but already about one third of them face extremely high water stress, meaning that their freshwater usage is highly unsustainable.
The New York Times recently chronicled how the US “striking” dietary shift in recent decades toward far more chicken and cheese has not only contributed to concerns about health “but has taken a major, undocumented toll on underground water supplies.” The effects are being felt in key agricultural regions nationwide as farmers have drained groundwater to grow animal feed. The article outlines how food choices have long led to debates not only about personal health but also animal welfare, cultural expectations, and the role of government regulations in shaping people’s diets.
The Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), a nonprofit scientific organization committed to advancing the science of food and its application across the global food system, has released a white paper that examines existing and novel processing technologies. The white paper argues the global food community must address the benefits of processing technology. Problems that need to be overcome include a lack of up-to-date and aligned regulations, limited public-private funding support, non-optimized technology, and inaccurate consumer knowledge about food processing.
Further development, scaling, and adoption of these emerging technologies can contribute to a more nutritious, sustainable, and safe food supply and improve global food and nutrition security. The authors describe how the importance of accurate, science-based communications in collaboration with multiple stakeholders across the food value chain is critical to avoid consumer confusion and rejection of technology.
Final Thoughts about Food-Rich, Low Emissions Diets
I recently sampled a yummy ZENB Pasta on-the-go Agile Bowl. Mine was Cauliflower Tikki Masala — gluten-free, protein-rich, nutritious, and delicious. This plant based dish starts with quick cooking yellow pea pasta made from one simple ingredient: 100% yellow peas, including the skins. It’s the kind of safe, nutritious, and accessible food that is in global demand as we seek out ways to conserve natural resources. ZENB was founded by the Mizkan Group, which was established over 210 years ago in Japan and which has kept the philosophy of environmental consciousness at the center of its core values.
Perhaps some of the answers to the food industry’s contributions to emissions begin with appreciating one ingredient foods like ZENB offers. Maybe it’s eating locally as Barbara Kingsolver described in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life.
It could look at who these animal eaters really are, too, and inform them of their role in climate pollution. Earlier this year a study from Tulane University in New Orleans found that a relatively small number of people in the US are responsible for the majority of beef consumption—and those eaters tend to skew older and male. But the beef industry isn’t content with the narrowing demographics of its customers, says Wired: “It has its eyes on creating a whole new generation of beef-eating aficionados.” The original study’s authors, however, say efforts to address climate change through diet modification could benefit from targeting campaigns to the highest consumers of beef, as their consumption accounts for half of all beef consumed.
A Food Tank editorial summarizes the need to address food’s relationship to the climate crisis through evidence-based analysis nicely on this Christmas Day.
“Food systems determine so many facets of our lives and so many environmental processes. We desperately need change and for food systems to be part of the climate solution. The only way to make those changes, and to know there is improvement, is to have the highest quality data. Without that, all we have are opinions. In today’s polarized and politicized world, only quality data can guide us towards food systems that work for both people and our planet.”
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