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Food and the planet

Since 2018, scientists from world over have been working overtime to understand the unexplored links between food systems, health and climate change. The most important insight from the study is that there are massive differences in GHG emissions from different foods

JAYDEV JANA | New Delhi |

Over the past century, the onset of industrial agriculture and the Green Revolution (more synthetic fertilizer, better pesticides, modern management techniques, better irrigation methods, and more productive cultivars) kept pace with the growing population and made a mockery of popular environmental books such as The Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich (1968) that confidently predicted mass famine and death by the 1980s. While the current production of food is sufficient to meet the demand even for the projected global population of 9.8 billion in 2050, the new UN report reveals a stubborn reality of ‘immense’ global challenge: globally more than 820 million people (or one in nine people) are hungry and malnourished, and the figure is rising.

Among the starving people “about 7 to 8 million people die every year of hunger or hunger related causes,” as estimated by the Nobel winning organization, World Food Programme (WFP). Global hunger today is a consequence of many factors, including poverty, natural disasters, lack of economic access (whether people can afford food) and physical access (whether food is reaching them), failed states and war.

India has proudly been projected by her government as selfsufficient in production as well as an exporter of food. But tragically the availability of food to her people is so inadequate that the country stood 97th among 125 countries in Oxfam’s Food Availability Index (2018). The Global Hunger Index (GHI) 2020, which ranks India 94 among 107 nations, has once again brought to the fore the government’s failure to provide adequate food to a substantial segment of population despite the enactment of the National Food Security Act (NFSA) in 2013. With over 200 million food-insecure people, India is now home to the largest number of hungry people in the world.

In economics, the Engel’s law establishes a strong and positive relationship between the level of income and the demand for greater varieties of food, and also indicates element for projecting food demand growth. According to the law, as incomes increase, demand for livestock products such as meat, milk and eggs rises, compared with food of plant origin such as cereals. Livestock products are not only tasty and provide high-value protein but are also important sources of a wide range of essential micronutrients, in particular minerals such as iron and zinc, and vitamins such as vitamin A & vitamin B12. This change of food habits is known as dietary transition. Demand of livestock products, particularly for meat, is growing. Over the past 50 years, meat production has more than quadrupled. Growth in meat consumption accelerates as countries pass through middle-income stages.

Worldwide growing addiction for livestock products is putting too much pressure on land, water and environment leading to climate change. Half of the world’s habitable (ice and desert free) land is used for agriculture. The area covered is around 51 million square km. Around 70 per cent of global freshwater withdrawals are for agriculture. Nutrient-rich pollutants of agriculture caused eutrophication in 78 per cent of global ocean and fresh water.

When it comes to tackling Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions vis-à-vis climate change, the focus usually tends to be on ‘clean energy’ solutions ~ the deployment of renewable or nuclear energy; or transition to low-carbon transport. Indeed, energy, whether in the form of electricity, heat, transport or industrial processes, accounts for 76 per cent of GHG emissions. But the global food system, which encompasses broadly production, and post-harvest processes such as processing, and distribution is a key contributor to emissions. Since 2018, scientists from world over have been working overtime to understand the unexplored links between food systems, health and climate change. The most important insight from the study is that there are massive differences in GHG emissions from different foods. Overall, animal-based foods tend to have a higher footprint than plant–based. CO2 is the most important GHG, but not the only one; agriculture is a larger source of other GHGs. Hence, to capture all GHG emissions from food production, researchers expressed them in kilogram of CO2 equivalents (CO2e).

In September 2020, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) along with three international organisations, EAT, WWF and Climate Focus, released a report that says that the food production line of the world ~ which involves everything from growing and harvesting crops to processing, transporting, marketing, consumption and disposal of food and related items – that sustains around 7.8 billion people, accounts for about a quarter (21 to 37 per cent) of GHG emitted every year due to human activities. This means, our food system is as polluting as sectors like electricity and heat production (which accounts for 25 per cent of GHGs) and industry (21 per cent), and are more polluting than transportation (14 per cent) and buildings and energy use (16 per cent).

Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, nations set a target to limit warming to a limit of 20 C, with more ambitious target of 1.50 C. Based on scientific evidence, the IPCC report concludes that in order to limit warming to 20 C, CO2 equivalent CO2e emissions would need to be reduced by 25 per cent by 2030 (compared to the 2010 level) and go to zero by 2070. To reach 1.50 C, CO2e emissions would need to go down by 45 per cent by 2030 and to zero by 2050. The food system itself is enough to heat up the planet above the 1.5 degree C target under the Paris Agreement sometime between 2051 and 2063. This has been noted in the November 2020 issue of the journal Science. There are four key elements to consider when trying to quantify food GHG emissions.

(1) Livestock & Fisheries account for 31 per cent of food emissions: Livestock ~ animals raised for meat, dairy, eggs and seafood production ~ contribute to emissions in several ways. Ruminant livestock ~ mainly cattle ~ for example, produce methane through their digestive processes (in a process known as ‘enteric fermentation’). Manure management, pasture management, and fuel consumption from fishing vessels also fall into this category. This 31 per cent relates to on-farm ‘production’ emission only. It does not include land use change or supply chain emissions from the production of crops for animal feed: these figures are included separately in the other categories.

(2)Land use accounts for 24 per cent of food emissions: twice as many emissions result from land use for livestock (16 per cent) as for crops for human consumption (8 per cent). Agriculture expansion results in the conversion of forests, grasslands and other carbon ‘sinks’ into cropland or pasture resulting in Carbon di-oxide emissions. ‘Landuse’ here is the summation of land use change, savannah burning and organic soil cultivation (plowing and overturning of soil).

(3) Supply chains account for 18 per cent of food emissions: this chain consists of Transport (6 per cent of food emissions), food processing

(4 per cent), Packaging (5 per cent) and retailing (3 per cent). (4) Crop production accounts for 31 per cent of food emissions. Twenty-one per cent of food emission comes from crops for direct human consumption, and 6 per cent from producing animal feed. Moreover, there are direct emissions which result from agricultural production – this includes elements such as the release of nitrous oxide from application of fertilisers and manures, methane emissions from rice production and CO2 from agricultural machinery.

People across the world are becoming concerned about climate change. On an average 8 in 10 people see climate change as a major threat to their country. So, it is essential to reduce GHG emission of food production. The September 2020 assessment by UNEP says reducing land-use change and conservation of natural habitats alone could lower emissions by 4.6 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalents (GtCO2e) a year. Reducing food loss and waste, which accounts for 8 per cent of anthropogenic emissions, could lower the emission load by 4.5 GtCO2e. Improving production methods and reducing methane from livestock could lower emissions by up to 1.44GtCO2e. A massive 8GtCO2e of emission reduction could be achieved by including higher proportion of plant-based foods in the diet than animal-based foods.

The EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health has set global targets for food systems that are environmentally sustainable and human health. Since all of the 14GtCO2e from food system cannot be eliminated by 2050, as it is intrinsic to the biological processes in plants and animals, the commission has set the planetary boundary for food production emissions, or carbon budget, at a maximum of 5GtCO2e. The remaining 9Gt could principally be mitigated by shifting of diets from animalbased diets to plant-based diets (Vegan diets) and by changing production practices and reducing food loss and waste. CO2 emission from plant-based products are as much as 10-50 times lower than most animal-based products. In the words of Albert Einstein: “Nothing will benefit the earth and increase the chances for survival of life on Earth as the evolution of a vegetarian diet.”