Written by Amna Sulaman Khan
Supervised by Mahwish Afridi
Our food system and the climate are deeply interlinked. The global food system is amongst the biggest contributors to climate change—and one of its biggest casualties. The way we produce, eat and waste food is one of the largest drivers of climate change globally, with about one-third of global GHG emissions coming from the food sector. (United Nations, n.d.) According to research, even if all fossil fuel emissions magically disappeared, emissions from just the food sector alone would still cause the world temperature to increase more than 1.5 degrees celsius, consequently triggering an even more acute food crisis than we currently have. (Agarwal, 2022) Global food production is increasingly vulnerable to climate change, predominantly impacting developing countries. Rising temperatures, heat waves, droughts, floods, fires, changes in rainfall patterns, extreme events, etc affect agriculture more than any other sector. Additionally, the food system is also the primary driver of biodiversity loss, with agriculture alone threatening 86% of species at risk of extinction.
There is already a food shortage, 828 million people are facing hunger globally. (World Food Programme, 2022) According to the WFP in a 2-degree warmer world, an additional 189 million could become food insecure. In a 4-degree warmer world, that number could increase by 1.8 billion more people, primarily in the developing world. (World Food Programme, n.d.)
Hence, this paper illustrates the importance of reforming our food system to prevent climate degradation and meet stringent climate targets.
| “Most of us generate more planet-warming emissions from eating than we do
from driving or flying. Food production now accounts for about a fifth of total
greenhouse gas emissions annually, which means that agriculture contributes
more than any other sector, including energy and transportation, to climate change.”
– Amanda Little, author of The Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in
a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World
The flaws in the food system had been ignored by all past COP summits. Fortunately, COP27 in 2022 addressed the urgency and food was put at the heart of climate dialogue and action. It is a crucial part of any discussion to address climate change and achieve a more sustainable future.
Impact of the Food System on Climate Change
The food industry is on track to become the largest contributor to climate change, outpacing even the fossil fuel industry. The impact of the food system encompasses emissions produced between getting food from the farm to the fork, and all of the processes and infrastructure involved in feeding the population. This system comprises of sub-systems such as agriculture farming systems, livestock farming, transportation systems, energy systems, culinary systems, etc. (Future of food, n.d.) Climate-altering gases such as nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide and methane are the by-products of these systems with each being released at different stages. For example, methane is released naturally by cows through a process known as enteric fermentation, nitrous oxide is generated by the manure output, and CO2 is produced during transportation and dairy manufacturing, toxins are produced during production of plastic food packaging, and so on. Methane emissions are particularly problematic, which are up to 34 times more damaging to the environment than CO2, according to the UN. (BBC, 2021)
Beef is particularly emission-intensive, on average 3.5 oz of protein produces 110 lbs of GHG. Lamb has the second highest environmental footprint, but it is 50% lower than that of beef. (Ibid) These emissions are on a trajectory to increase as global meat demand is on the rise due to increasing population, urbanisation and affluence. (Owino et al., 2022) Dairy practices also emit large amounts of GHG, 45% of which includes methane. (‘Milky Planet’, 2022) Moreover, high-income countries consume about six times more milk products than low-income countries. (Owino et al., 2022) According to a study based on the year 2014, the emission intensity (kg CO2-eq/kg protein) of milk and meat production in Pakistan ranked higher than the global average emission values. (Habib Ghulam, 2019)
The Wider Environmental Impact
Our food system has a wide environmental impact; such as deforestation, soil contamination, water shortage and contamination, soil erosion, loss of biodiversity, etc.
Globally, the increasing demand for agricultural goods incentivizes people to convert forests to farmland, driving nature to be squeezed out of the planet. Half of all habitable land is used for agriculture. (Our World in Data, n.d.). Consequently, this has also led to a biodiversity loss and continues to do so. Moreover, three-quarters of this land is used to feed and raise livestock. (ibid.) In Pakistan, due to the accelerated population growth forests are shrinking and so are farm sizes. It is essential to use farmland efficiently for more food return on smaller lands; to feed the growing population and also prevent further deforestation. (Wattoo & Mehmood, 2023)
Protecting the soil is key for climate change mitigation as it absorbs 30% of the CO2 emitted by human activities.(Garthwaite, 2021) Soil is the earth’s fertile skin that anchors all life on Earth. It is a finite non-renewable natural resource, and is eroding at an alarming rate, much faster than that of soil formation due to climate change, unsustainable agricultural practices, over-use and improper use, and so on. It takes up to 1,000 years to produce only 2-3 cm of soil. At this pace, the impact of soil degradation will result in a massive food crisis and $23 trillion in lost food and income worldwide by 2050. (fao, n.d.) Additionally, the use of certain pesticides and fertilisers leads to soil and water contamination with harmful chemicals. Pesticides also cause soil erosion as they kill essential insects. According to soil scientists, at this rate of degradation, in 50 years we will no longer have enough arable topsoil and it will be impossible to feed the world, keep global warming below 2 degree celsius, or halt biodiversity loss. (Regeneration International, n.d.) Moreover, the nutritional quality of our food will also diminish due to loss of important minerals in our soil. (ibid)
Furthermore, our food system has had a significant impact on our finite water resources. 70% of the world’s fresh water is used for agricultural purposes. The water footprint of beef is astronomical, estimated at 1800 gallons of water per 1 pound of beef. (F. N. T., 2019) Furthermore, poor handling of manure and fertilisers can degrade local water resources.
Additionally, the ensued rise in temperature due to our food emissions will consequently result in increased droughts, glaciers melting, floods, and other disasters that will affect farmland and farmers.
Another reason our food system is unsustainable and harming the environment is because of its ‘food-miles’. The food system incorporates use of transportation in a lot of steps such as getting the food from farm to market, fertiliser to farms, feeder crops from one farm to other livestock farms, market to home, etc. Our increased reliance on international trade for the food system has caused a huge surge in the output’s food-miles. (Weber & Matthews, 2008)
Emissions in Vain
According to a UNEP report, one-third of the global production is wasted, and 40% of Pakistan’s food is wasted. (Nazir, 2022) The loss occurs at various steps as a lot of the food is lost during the supply chain i.e. From production, post harvest handling, processing, distribution, and then a lot of food is wasted in hotels, restaurants, and households. Emissions due to wasted food are ‘emissions in vain’. Food loss and waste contributes to climate change in two ways. First, by unnecessarily consuming the earth’s resources e.g. land nutrients, water etc and contributing to GHG emissions. Secondly by ending up in landlines where it decomposes and contaminates our soil and groundwater. Additionally, food waste also propels countries to import more edible goods to fulfil its needs, causing an increase in the system’s food-miles.
Impact of climate on food
The food and climate systems are in a vicious cycle. As demonstrated above, the food system contributes significantly to climate change and environment degradation. In turn, the degraded climate impacts the food system too. Climate change impacts of extreme heat, drought, floods, fires and other severe weather conditions damage agricultural land. According to the UN, crop yields could decline by 30% by 2050 if we don’t take adaptive measures. (‘How Food Production and Climate Change Create a Vicious Cycle’, 2021) Furthermore, some species of weeds, insects, and other pests benefit from higher temperatures and increased CO2 levels, increasing their potential to damage crops, thus creating a food crisis and financial hardships for farmers.
According to studies, climate change alters the biomass composition of food and is expected to lower its nutritional quality, hence impacting human health. (Owino et al., 2022) Elevated CO2 in the atmosphere results in more rapid plant growth rates, but also reduces protein content and nutrients such as calcium, iron and zinc. Most plants grown with elevated CO2 have decreased compositions of nitrogen and protein. Rice, wheat, barley and potatoes have shown a 7-15% reduction in protein content. CO2 concentrations of 690 ppm lead to 5-10% reduction in phosphorus, potassium, calcium, sulphur, magnesium, iron, zinc, copper and manganese across a wide range of crops. (ibid)
The Environmental Impact of the Hospitality Sector
The hospitality sector has a massive impact on the environment. For starters, it contributes to large amounts of food waste. Pakistan produces 36 million tonnes of food waste each year from parties, hotels and weddings. (Zhao, Madni and Anwar, 2022) Additionally, the hospitality sector also contributes to large amounts of non food waste such as packaging and plastic cutlery. 40 billion pieces of non biodegradable cutlery is thrown away each year just in the United States. (Madanaguli et al., 2022) Furthermore, restaurants contribute towards increasing the food-miles of our food by planning their menus with imported ingredients. This contributes towards both damaging the environment and also our economy.
Recommendations: Reducing our Food-Print
Measuring the environmental impact of different foods is not a simple task as these include emissions from processing, packaging and transportation, rather than just the farming process. Mitigating the challenges of climate change will require us to use holistic and inclusive approaches to transform our food systems – ranging from policy reforms, R&D investments, changing our individual lifestyles, etc. Taking various steps can reduce the negative impact the food system has on our environment.
“Imagine a scenario in 2050 where societies have transitioned away from coal and natural gas to wind, solar, and other renewable energy sources. In this scenario, public policy and infrastructure investments have made walking, cycling, and public transit the most accessible and popular forms of transportation. Air travel is used only as a last resort. In what is otherwise a best-case scenario, if global trends in meat and dairy intake continue, our chances of staying below the 2° Celsius threshold will still be extremely slim. This is why urgent and dramatic reductions in meat and dairy consumption, alongside reductions in GHG emissions from energy use, transportation, and other sources, are crucial to avoiding catastrophic climate change.
-Excerpts from study by John Hopkins center for a livable future
(Food and Climate Change, 2019)
Eating Locally Sourced Food
In order to reduce our food-mile emissions and make the food system more environment friendly, climate advocates argue for a ‘localization’ of the global food supply network. We need to rectify our food eating and producing habits and shift our focus towards locally grown foods rather than imported ones. Additionally, we also need to produce food items we have more frequently, e.g. edible oil.
Reducing Food Waste and Food Loss
We need to curb our ‘emissions in vain’ by taking steps to reduce our food loss and waste. This will require intervention in various steps from improving production, processing, transport and storage. AN estimated 36 million tonnes of food is wasted in Pakistan every year. This is equivalent to every citizen of Karachi, Lahore and Hyderabad tossing out entire lunches and dinners every day. (Mughal, 2018) 40 percent of food in Pakistan is wasted, we need to take steps to mitigate this issue in order to reduce our environmental footprint, prevent the economic costs, and lessen food insecurity in the country.
Investment in Agritech
Research and development in Pakistan remains significantly underfunded. Our unsustainable practices necessitates investment in Agritech including solar power, more water-friendly irrigation systems, better storage provisions, etc. Such investments have not only shown potential to reduce emissions, but will also raise output and help with both climate change and food security.
Regenerative agriculture (RA) can help transform the environmental impact of the food system. RA refers to farming and grazing methods that are climate friendly. It not only “does no harm” to the land, but improves it. It revitalises soil quality. Regenerative agriculture encompasses the usage of various methods. These include reducing the use of artificial fertilisers which leads to an imbalance of microbes in the soil resulting in weak plants that become dependent on artificial fertilisers. Additionally farmers plant cover crops or perennial plants which protect the soil from erosion, protecting beneficial nutrients from being washed away, and promote carbon absorption. (MasterClass, 2021)
Making the Hospitality Industry more Food Sustainable
Hospitality industry has a huge role to play in countering the environmental impact of the food system. This can be done through taking various steps such as taking measures to reduce food waste, sourcing locally produced goods, preparing menus with less imported ingredients, reducing portion sizes to reduce waste, not using plastic cutlery, using more greens and less meat in the menu plans, etc.
Optimising Land Use
We need to take better care of our lands. Firstly, by utilising land space more efficiently, i.e. keeping a limited amount for agriculture and leaving most of it for forests. This can be achieved by primarily growing crops for direct consumption, rather than utilising large land spaces for livestock or crops grown to feed livestock. as this consequently results in a need for a larger agricultural land-space for lesser food quantity returns. Livestock covers about 80% of global agricultural land, yet produces less than 20% of the world’s food supply (Our World in Data, n.d.) Secondly, the use of excess fertiliser and pesticides degrades our soil and water quality and should be used carefully.
Eating Food with Lower Emissions
We should prefer foods with smaller carbon footprints than others, for example non-animal protein generally emits much less GHGs than meat and dairy. Replacing beef with chicken is a good start, and replacing both with peas would be great as their production results in 90% less emissions.” (BBC, 2021) Dietary changes that substitute animal products with vegetable products have a high mitigation potential if executed on a large enough scale, especially if it impacts the food industry through general consumer preference. However, this is a difficult feat as consumption in general is increasing and there is very poor general knowledge about the impact our food has on the environment and global mitigation potential through dietary changes.
Furthermore, an average 40-gram bar of chocolate carries a carbon footprint of approximately 5 kgs of carbon per kilogram of chocolate. This increases to 300 grams for a bar of dark chocolate, as a result of greater cacao content. Additionally, 10,000 l of water is needed to produce a kilogram of chocolate. (Aliouche, 2021)
Changing diets on a national or international scale will require more than just educating consumers, but national policies will need to shift in order to support more planet-centric diets. (Food and Climate Change, 2019) Nevertheless, we have a personal responsibility to eat food with lower emissions and should do what we can in our individual capacities.
The best time to act was yesterday, and the next best time is today.
Mending the flaws in the food system is a multidimensional problem that requires a multidimensional solution. This crisis has not received sufficient attention and funding to address it. The cracks in our food system need to be repaired urgently for timely and substantive change, it is critical for tackling both the climate crises and food crises. In the recent past agricultural production has drastically increased, food supply chains have globalised and large scale deforestation has been done. This crisis is on a trajectory to worsen in time due to population growth and increase in food demand, hence there will be a heavier strain on the environment, which will in turn impact food production. Food is one of the most urgent (and most powerful) ways to address the climate crisis. It is of utmost importance to take timely stringent steps to prevent this crisis from becoming a reality.
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