Urgent reform is needed to help reduce the carbon footprint of our food industry — but how can we collectively achieve this?

Current research shows global food industries are responsible for 26% of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In today’s society, with awareness increasing and climate change becoming a major socio-political issue, there has been a trend towards more conscious eating, such as organic food and veganism, throughout the Western world.

But how sustainable is the way we eat, and is it too little too late to save our planet?

Examining the consequences

Our agricultural industries contribute massively to global warming through many avenues. Undisputedly, the worst of these is livestock production, responsible for nearly 60% of all food industry emissions. Global livestock production, which has increased dramatically since the 60s, produces GHGs in a myriad of ways including: growing feed, processing and transporting products, nitrous oxide release from artificial fertilisers, gases from manure and enteric fermentation.

Livestock also demands a change in land-use for grazing and feed production, which drives deforestation and reduces carbon storage within forest biomass. For example, the cattle industry alone is responsible for 80% of deforestation in the Amazon, highlighting the undeniable impact our food demands have on even the largest global ecosystems.

Although, it’s not just meat contributing to negative impacts of global food systems. Intensive farming to grow our fruit, vegetables and grains heavily impacts the environment too.

Non-meat foods are mostly cultivated in monocultures, where the same thing is grown en masse repeatedly over a number of years, negatively affecting soil fertility, biodiversity and long-term yields. Growth of these crops also requires fertilisers, mostly artificial Nitrogen or Phosphorous based products, often used in excess to help farmers meet growing demand.

A prominent effect of such fertiliser usage is eutrophication, when a body of water becomes overly enriched with nutrients, excessive algal growth ensues which depletes water oxygen levels, killing life within. Consequently, aquatic biodiversity is decreasing, and dead zones in coastal areas are rapidly expanding, with nutrient leaching from agricultural fields largely to blame.

While artificial fertilisers, land-use change, and other GHG sources stemming from agricultural practices all impact the environment, a ubiquitous requirement to all forms of farming is water. Water is used extensively within food industries, with over 70% of all freshwater consumed annually used for commercial farming purposes.

Our growing population will require an estimated 50% increase in agricultural production by 2050, necessitating a 15% rise in water withdrawal. However, in a world where 2 billion people currently live without access to safely managed water services, and 3.6 billion people lack access to decent sanitation facilities, improving the efficiency of water management in contemporary farming is imperative.

Mitigating the negative impact: CSA for sustainable agriculture?

The bleak impacts of large-scale agriculture are well documented and widely experienced, begging the question: what is actually being done to shift our global food industries towards a more sustainable future?

Firstly, the most impactful way to reduce emissions and increase production is to change the way we farm.

There are numerous emerging methods to improve agriculture’s environmental impact which could be discussed at length, though one worth mentioning is climate-smart agriculture (CSA). This exciting intervention holds significant potential to advance the sustainability of agricultural systems in the face of rising food insecurity and global warming.

As an integrated approach to managing landscapes, CSA aims to increase the productivity and financial gains from a given crop, while simultaneously building ecosystem resilience to climate change and reducing emissions. This is achieved by utilising more efficient technologies, such as temperature-/flood-/drought-resilient crops, optimising natural fertiliser usage, adapting planting schedules and applying modernised irrigation techniques. In doing so, CSA could reduce the vulnerability of the agri-food industry, as well as securing the livelihoods of many farmers.

The need for policy reform

In spite of this, some academics have suggested that technical fixes, like CSA, are short-term, profit-driven intermediaries that take an apolitical approach to addressing vulnerability within food systems.

Such crises disproportionately affect certain communities, largely in the poorer ‘Global South’, while most of the 1.9 billion adults classed as being overweight or obese are typically situated in higher-income countries. Therefore, whilst increasing productivity is certainly the goal, there must be fairer distribution of food to lower-/middle-income countries, especially to Indigenous Peoples, small-scale food producers and low-income households, in order to reduce hunger and achieve global equality.

While some corporations are taking it upon themselves to individually improve farming efficiency, policy reform is essential to guide whole industries towards sustainability and address the systemic inequalities that “stratify contemporary patterns of food production, distribution and consumption”.

The importance of tackling such issues is gaining recognition. In 2015, as a ‘universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and improve the lives and prospects of everyone, everywhere’, UN member states adopted the 2030 sustainable development agenda. This agreement aims to achieve 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) for future prosperity by 2030, in terms of common economic and social growth, whilst still providing adequate protection for the planet.

Whilst the SDGs aren’t specifically designed to change the food industry alone, many of these targets are reliant upon creating this shift within the sector. For example, SDG12 centres around sustainable production/consumption, thereby reducing global warming and pollution. Much of this is aimed toward the food industry, specifically referencing halving global food waste, reducing chemical leakage into water/soil and increasing sustainability information to consumers.

There are other SDGs positively affected by improving the agri-food industry too, such as SDG2, aimed at ending hunger by increasing food security whilst maintaining biodiversity and promoting sustainable agriculture. Ameliorating standards within the food industry by adhering to these guidelines will help achieve a less harmful and more equitable means of production, aligning with the UN’s targets.

Individual action, collective impact

However, such goals can often be difficult to impose quickly on a wide scale. Therefore, we, the consumers, can influence this change now and also reduce GHGs through shifting our diets and buying more ethically minded food.

It has been shown that a shift away from a meat-based diet is single-handedly the best way you can reduce your carbon footprint, as a vegan diet reduces emissions by nearly half in comparison to meat-eating. A reduction in the number of animal-based products you buy and introducing ideas like only consuming meat, or other carbon-heavy food choices like cheese, a few times a week all help lessen the impact of the food we eat.

That said, simply switching diets is not the solution, as vegan alternatives may also be a cause for environmental concern. For example, 80% almond milk is produced in California where there has been drought for many years; 6,098L of water is needed to produce 1L of almond milk, showing that ‘eco’ alternatives aren’t always environmentally friendly.

A sensible way to shop for our food is to become more mindful of what we’re buying. Simply ensuring the produce you’re purchasing is in season or checking where the food is sourced can significantly reduce your diet’s carbon footprint. Buying locally or purchasing food from a low-emission intensity source reduces your food’s GHG emissions hugely, whilst also supporting local economies.

While tackling the complexities of agriculture’s impact on the planet and global populations may seem daunting and almost unattainable, the importance of initiating this change is paramount. Such reformation requires synergies between actors at government, business and individual levels, to help promote an eco-friendlier food industry. However, such a transition also provides ample opportunity to address the current inequalities within contemporary food systems. Thus, working towards a more sustainable agri-food industry, whilst adhering to other objectives lined out in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals is essential to reduce global hunger, and prevent irreversible damage to the environment.