Food Emission Solutions : A Double Edged Sword !

Credit: Tim Mossholder/ unsplash
  • In some ways, this year’s UN climate summit held in Egypt was all about food. 
  • Cop27 included the first ever day dedicated to food and climate.
  • The food industry’s fingerprints were all over the solutions touted at the UN climate summit.

Scientists are clear that the interconnected climate, environmental and food crises require bold transformative action to drastically reduce greenhouse gasses and improve resilience. Food systems produce a third of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. Cattle ranching is the main driver of Amazon rainforest loss, while industrialized food production is the biggest threat to 86% of the world’s species at risk of extinction.

Climate-Smart Agriculture

The phrase “climate smart” – the mother of all buzzwords – has made its way into climate plans and policy making, adopted by corporations, governments and multilateral agencies, such as the World Bank and FAO. Billions of dollars are going into research on so-called climate-smart tech solutions such as robotics, AI, net zero dairy, cultivated meat and precision farming, including drones, GPS and drip-irrigation technologies. 

A key proponent of climate-smart agriculture is the Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate initiative (Aim4C), a joint initiative spearheaded by the US and the UAE, which has promised $4bn in agricultural innovation to reduce emissions. It is supported by 40 countries and some of the world’s largest food companies including PepsiCo, the meat giant JBS and CropLife, an association of agrochemical companies. 

Food’s Giant Methane Issue

Methane is a short-lived but powerful heat-trapping gas that accounts for about a third of the rise in global temperature since the pre-industrial era. Livestock – through cattle burps, manure and the cultivation of feed crops – is responsible for nearly a third of global anthropogenic methane emissions. But the focus at Cop27 was not on changing human diets but rather cows’ diets – to make their burps less gassy.

There was much excitement from JBS, Nestlé, the world’s largest food and drinks company, and the meat and dairy trade groups about the boom in methane-reducing feed additives made from ingredients such as seaweed. But the long-term risks and benefits of these emerging products remain unclear.

Fossil Fuel Based Fertilizers

The global food system is a heavy user of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, produced in an energy-intensive process reliant on fossil fuels. They are credited with helping to increase yields and reduce hunger, but their expansion has come at a huge cost to the environment, climate and human and animal health.

Synthetic nitrogen fertilizers are responsible for 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to a 2022 study, which found that reducing their use “offers large mitigation potential” in addition to other health, environmental and economic benefits. Yet curtailing synthetic fertilizers was not on the agenda at Cop27, rather the focus of industry reps and European and US officials was on fertilizer access and “efficiency” 

Branding fertilizer efficiency as climate action is further evidence of the industry controlling the narrative, said Lili Fuhr, deputy director for climate and energy at the Centre for Environmental Integrity. “Synthetic fertilizers are just fossil fuels in another form. Fertilizer companies know they will soon be under scrutiny…”

Industrial Agriculture

The industrial food sector pitches itself as the only way to feed a growing population. Yet small farmers (with less than two hectares) produce over a third of the world’s food – despite having access to only 12% of agricultural land. Still, the momentum and the money seem to be skewed in favor of industrial agriculture, allowing it to continue to grow and emit. Almost 90% of the $540bn in global food subsidies, which play a big role in deciding what food is produced and what we eat, have been deemed “harmful” to the planet.

“Subsidies are a major change agent. They make it hard for farmers to make changes, and stop consumer-driven market changes from naturally taking place.” said Stephanie Haszczyn from the Farm Animal Investment Risk & Return (Fairr) initiative. But neither subsidies nor agroecology were on the agenda at Cop27. “It was very disturbing to see a large contingent of corporate lobbyists influencing the process while small-scale farmers have been shut out and drowned out,” said Million Belay, an Ipes-Food expert and general coordinator of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa.

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Source: TheGuardian


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