Thought for food and food for thought
How we grow and produce food is contributing around a third of all human-kind greenhouse gas emissions. Our food system requires a radical overhaul, and our expectations and habits really do need to be reappraised.
This weekend, Cop 26 began, raising our consciousness further. Yes, it’s generating headlines, but doesn’t it feel like we’ve all done lots of talking but there’s still insufficient action? Do we really have clear strategies to make a tangible difference?
So, what are the headlines we might consider as individuals?
Is there anything each one of us can do to create a more significant change if we do it together? Perhaps a little more mindfulness might help us balance some of the numbers. For example, if we eat a lot of meat, chicken or dairy then these three sectors alone contribute 57 percent of food-based emissions. On the other hand, growing plant-based foodstuffs only contributes 29 percent.
It seems like a fairly straightforward swap to make.
Yes, dairy farmers will be devastated by a fall in demand, but the agricultural industry has made major changes to how and what it farms, and this is surely just another example of further creativity and agility to remain relevant ?
By incorporating more plant-based foods into our diets it will help to reduce some of the emission totals. With supermarkets like Tesco recently cutting the cost of plant-based foods on their shelves then more people might feel inclined to make a swap.
Is it really as simple as I am suggesting? Of course not
Image from Greenbiz
A new framework, covering the 6 years between 2007-2013 has been developed by Xiaoming Xu Postdoctoral Research Associate in Atmospheric Sciences and Atul Jain Professor both of Atmospheric Sciences University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign It demonstrates there are many sub sectors when it comes to emissions. Through its modelling we can now estimate what global emissions are created annually through the food system at every level.
What are the figures that frighten us so much?
The global food system creates an annual carbon dioxide figure of around 17.3 billion metric tons. How farmers manage land use is critical in these figures. For example, clearing land to run cattle is a massive contributor to this CO2 output. Not only do cattle destroy fragile landscapes but the CO2 storage capacity of trees and soil is also lost when forests are grubbed up. It’s a double whammy by those with serious meat addictions.
When a farmer starts farming land by turning it with a plough or dressing the soil with nitrogen fertilisers, we can add a 38 per cent spike in gas emissions. Farmers also utilise fossil fuels for agricultural machinery with many machines being outdated and less green or adapted to run on more environmental options.
Cattle burp and fart
Cattle's manure releases methane and nitrous oxide. Here is another 21 per cent of gas emissions being generated right here. The rest, around 11 per cent is the stuff we do to help food production along. Think transportation, mining, food production and manufacturing.
Years ago, few people were barely aware of the supply chain
They didn’t think much, if at all about the provenance of their food or workers’ welfare. Post war consumers were delighted by increased choice and availability, and we kept buying. However, if we now want to shift behaviours and try to make a difference, are there foods we should cut down or avoid? You probably won’t be surprised to learn that beef is the biggest climate change baddie and creates a quarter of all emissions. Cows’ milk generates 8 percent and pork products 7 per cent. However, perhaps surprisingly, rice doesn’t come off particularly well. We all know it’s grown in water to cut down on weeds. This creates the perfect growing medium for bacteria and these critters create methane.
Rice isn’t so saintly
Therefore, rice generates 12 percent of emissions, wheat create 5 percent and sugar cane 2 percent. As a consequence, southern hemisphere countries tend to do badly in food production emissions by region alone. South East Asia and the South contribute 23 per cent whereas South America emits 20 per cent predominantly down to the production of meat products.
It’s easy to write scary headlines
But what I believe we are all crying out for is some sensible and accurate advice about what we can do on a practical level. You might think that becoming vegan is the only option, yet British grass-fed beef is a far eco-friendlier approach, especially if it’s sourced from a local farmer. In fact, eating seasonally and locally while also cutting portion sizes could be a really easy approach to helping the planet regain its equilibrium.
I am beginning to feel that it’s definitely about shopping and consuming more mindfully and that includes considering transport miles, packaging, plastics, ethics and so on. Food has been very cheap for a long time and perhaps we have stopped valuing it plus all the resources used in producing what we eat from farm to fork. It’s food for thought and thought for food. What are your plans? Will your behaviours change, or do you think your contribution will make little difference?