The UN recently stated that it finds ‘no credible pathway to 1.5C in place’ with current global commitments to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. In anticipation of the conclusion of COP27, here is a recap from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, released in April 2022. This looks at possible solutions and mitigation strategies in response to the changing climate, including what role the food system can play in our fight against climate change.
Here are five takeaways about the food system and its role in reducing global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
The food system has an important role in reducing GHG emissions
The global food system, from production to consumption, is responsible for a third of all GHG emissions, with agriculture specifically contributing 25%. The report identifies several plausible actions that, when sustainably implemented, could reduce these emissions, thereby highlighting the important role the food system must play.
The mitigation options explored focus on small changes that could deliver big impacts – or the ‘low hanging fruit’. The report highlights the further development of sustainable intensification as a key method of reducing the emissions associated with food production whilst not compromising on nutritional content and the health of the natural environment. This shift would involve the use of different breeds of crops as well as improved methods for managing livestock.
Regarding the improved management of livestock, enteric fermentation (which takes place within the digestive systems of animals and produces the potent greenhouse gas methane through belching) is explored at length. The report highlights the changing of feed, the addition of supplements, and more targeted livestock breeding as strategies to mitigate methane emissions from enteric fermentation.
Implementing improved water and residue management within rice agriculture could also reduce methane emissions by reducing the occurrence of the anaerobic conditions associated with the farming of this key and prolific calorie crop. In agriculture more widely, improving the efficiency of nitrogen rich fertiliser application could reduce the frequency of nitrification and denitrification processes, thereby decreasing the production of another potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide (N2O). Although crop nutrient management can also be associated with a reduction in yields, the decrease in fertiliser use would also limit the emissions associated with its high carbon footprint.
The report also highlights how a change in certain materials used within the food system could contribute to its mitigation potential. One example mentioned is biochar, a material produced as a result of heating organic matter, such as manure and food waste, in oxygen limited environments. Energy is required for this process, but the use of biochar throughout the food system could potentially offer a range of benefits, from improving soil fertility and carbon sequestration ability upon its application to the soil, as well as using the gases produced in its production as biofuel, thus replacing gases derived from unsustainable resources.
The report states that embracing these shifts towards sustainable intensification would not only reduce CO2 emissions but would also see the reduction of the shorter lasting but more potent greenhouse gases methane and nitrous oxide (N2O), as well as freeing up land for carbon sequestration methods, such as reforestation or peat bog restoration, the improving of biodiversity, or the construction of renewable energy infrastructure. This is especially true for land that is typically not prime agricultural land. These examples serve to highlight the vast reach of the food system and how small changes enacted throughout it can deliver a significant reduction in GHG emissions.
Our behaviours are going to have to change
Demand side change will also have to play a role in mitigating the impacts of the food system on the climate. A transition to sustainable healthy diets is vital to reduce the emissions of the global food system. Global studies continue to highlight the high mitigation potential of dietary change in line with dietary guidelines for total energy intake. These changes involve decreasing consumption of foods associated with higher carbon footprints, such as red meats and dairy; if these global dietary guidelines were followed, there is the potential to reduce GHG emissions by 29% as well as other positive environmental impacts, all from a change in diet alone.
As well as shifting to sustainable balanced diets, other socio-cultural demand side actions include reducing food loss and waste (referring to the edible parts of plants and animals produced for human consumption that are not ultimately consumed), as well as the avoidance of over consumption in many regions of the world. Given the developed world’s larger carbon footprint for food, these demand side changes will have a greater role to play – especially when it comes to the consumption of animal-based foods.
These behavioural changes must occur from the individual level all the way up to governments and large corporations. The report highlights the need to research and develop ‘choice architecture’ to help initiate these changes, as well as the further exploration and adoption of financial incentives, information campaigns, and food waste and recycling infrastructure.
Risks and trade-offs have to be managed to transform the food system
Mitigation options have synergies with many of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, however, some of these options can also have trade-offs. Despite the desperate need to reduce GHG emissions, changes to the food system in pursuit of this goal could jeopardise both nutrition and food security if implemented poorly.
Many CDR (carbon dioxide removal) techniques, such as peat bog restoration and enhanced soil sequestration, can have positive impacts for both the climate and food security – such as improving soil quality. However, these changes can displace food production, occupying land that would otherwise be used in agriculture, impacting food security. Therefore, integrated land-use planning must be championed, and any changes must involve consultation with indigenous populations. Without these vital consultations, changes could be implemented poorly at a large scale and significantly detriment food security and biodiversity.
Barriers to change the food system remain
The report accepts that huge institutional, economic, and policy constraints exist when aiming to transform the food system at a large scale in pursuit of mitigation.
One key barrier highlighted is the lack of evidence surrounding many of the mitigation strategies proposed within the report. Many of the CDR techniques, such as the increased use of biochar, have had limited use in the recent past and therefore more research is required to fully explore the potential of such methods. Regarding demand side change, the report also acknowledges there are no comprehensive, quantitative estimates available for many mitigation strategies such as the adoption of alternative protein or the impact of food waste mitigation techniques.
Another, more fundamental, barrier that is explored is the sheer size and complexity of the systemic change required. Many aspects of the food system, such as decisions surrounding land use, are spread across multiple people and stakeholders – from small farms to nation states – and the food system itself spreads across multiple disciplines, meaning there is a need for joined up, interdisciplinary thinking. If a systemic, holistic view of the food system is not adopted, changes could be poorly implemented; thereby not fulfilling their mitigation potential and could even worsen the food insecurity already experienced by many communities.
The need for joined up thinking
Due to these barriers and trade-offs, there is the need for joined up, systems thinking to deliver the comprehensive change required to reduce the food systems’ GHG emissions, as well as ensuring it delivers safe, nutritious, and sustainable diets. This need for joined up thinking, despite the challenges associated with it, represents an opportunity for an integrated approach to other issues the world faces and enables the delivery of multiple objectives.
Fundamentally, the food system is only one part of the puzzle in reducing global GHG emissions and its reform cannot mitigate climate impacts alone; however, reform, in conjunction with other policies and aims, could not only reduce GHG emissions but also improve health and well-being, support economic growth and secure biodiversity for the next generation.
Jack Blowers is a portfolio manager at the Global Food Security Programme