The global food production system is responsible for 35% of all greenhouse gas emissions, according to a new report published this week in Nature Food.
That is higher than previous studies have shown, which is because the researchers accounted for the entire food production ecosystem, to calculate the impact of food subsectors, including transportation, the use of pesticides, and irrigation.
One of the big headlines from the report is ‘global greenhouse gas emissions from animal-based foods are twice those of plant-based foods’, 57% of all food emission, compared to 29%. Meat consumption is rising, and the UN estimates total food production will jump by 70% by 2050 to feed what is expected to be a global population of nearly 10 billion, up from 7.8 billion today. As countries become wealthier, animal-based foods will also become desirable and more attainable.
The numbers are damning and reversing them is going to be hard. In March, Bill Gates said ‘all rich countries should move to 100% synthetic beef’ to cut emissions. While it is doubtful he expects anything close to this, it is a statement that should help inspire an acceleration of innovations in this area. And momentum and investment are key to developing a range of solutions. Researchers focussed on making soils healthier – and crop varieties more resilient – must have access to funding; while the promotion of regenerative agriculture practices, and the roll out of new technologies that can help smallholder farmers become more efficient, are other musts – but the list is long.
The future of food
Cell agriculture and meat substitutes are among the solutions that have featured on these pages, and though only a tiny percentage of the global market, plant-based meat alternatives are growing in popularity. Earlier this year, the Good Food Institute (GFI) released three reports showing 2020 was a breakthrough year for alternative proteins. A trend Emily Hennessee, a policy associate at GFI, spoke to Marc Buckley about on the Inside Ideas podcast, citing its potential to tackle the climate crisis and reduce the threat of pandemics.
“The fragility of the food systems the pandemic exposed has shown people that real change needs to be made,” Hennessee said. “The risk of zoonotic diseases and future pandemics are real and alternative proteins can help reduce that risk. We can take control and deal with future crisis’ but it’s now or never in terms of taking charge and shifting gears.”
Calls for a mindset shift in food habits are getting louder. But what about those who refuse to even consider giving up meat? Innovators worldwide are busy working on options that might help change their thinking.
“Cell agriculture is the field of producing animal products like meat, dairy and even products like leather, directly from cells instead of raising animals for these exact same products,” Ahmed Khan, the co-founder and member of the board of directors of Cellular Agriculture Canada, said about this burgeoning field of innovation.
Speaking to Marc on Inside Ideas about the need for more to be done to explain its benefits, he said: “From studies done in the past – if you explain to the public the ‘why’ – from the environmental and sustainability aspects, that this requires less resources than conventional animal agriculture for the same products, as well as the potential public health implications of the clean and sterile environment of using cells directly, people can understand why. It’s all about that communication, and radical transparency to make sure that people understand their food system. Context is everything and with food it matters so much more.”
The People’s Summit
The UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) in New York next week has been labelled The People’s Summit.
“The UNFSS2021 on Sept 23 will convene farmers and fishers, youth, Indigenous Peoples, and others to transform the world’s Food Systems,” tweeted Dr David Nabarro, World Health Organization Special Envoy.
It will also bring together nations from around the world that have been challenged to develop strategies that can accelerate ‘positive changes to the world’s food systems’. And after 18 months of negotiations and meetings between stakeholders the expectation is that detailed commitments and action plans for transforming global food systems will be announced in the Big Apple.
Talking about the need for ambitious plans, UN Secretary-General, António Guterres tweeted: “I urge everyone to come with ambitious commitments to feed hope for a better future.”
Anyone can sign up to join the virtual UNFSS on 23 September and help sound the beginning of the end for emission heavy food systems.