The food system in perspective
Is the food system crucial for the planet?
Agriculture and the food sector have been flying under the radar in the climate debate. This is about to change: Globally, a third of man-made greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to this sector. Food production and consumption account for 26%, the remaining 5% points are caused by outputs not intended for consumption (e.g. biofuels) or deforestation. Animal husbandry is responsible for 56-58% of these emissions (Poore – Nemecek, 2018).
Although the food system has kept pace with the steady increase in the world’s population – measured in calories per capita – more than 800 million people are still undernourished. The number of overweight people, on the other hand, has passed the 2 billion mark. Unhealthy diets are a greater risk of morbidity and mortality than unprotected sex, alcohol, drug and tobacco use combined (The Lancet Commission, 2019).
The war in Ukraine demonstrated that the observed food security may be more fragile than generally assumed. Export problems and reduced harvests in Ukraine have created fears (and steep price increases) that the abundant food offerings in the supermarket around the corner may be at risk, not to speak of increased likelihood of severe food shortages in parts of Africa and Asia.
Are animal products the main culprit?
Of particular importance in the large land use of animal products: The feed production for animals takes up about 80% of agricultural land while only 37% of protein and 18% of all calories are provided. Obviously, much more people could be nourished when plants would be consumed directly by humans and not through animals. For example, it takes seven 7 plant calories to produce one beef calorie. The ratio is somewhat better for pork – about 3:1 – but again the detour via animals requires substantially more input for food production than the direct consumption of plants by humans. Increasing the direct consumption of plants by humans would result in a substantial reduction of GHG emissions and the land needed to feed the world population. The latter was also responsible for massive biodiversity loss: Deforestation in the Amazonas to produce soybeans for cattle farming has been a daily reality rather than an urban myth.
Is the food system becoming more climate friendly…
While it is obvious that the large share of animal products are the main reason why western diets are not sustainable, currently observed trends are very disconcerting: Oxford University researchers (Springmann et al. 2016) show that if current dietary trends continue, greenhouse gas emissions from this sector will increase by 51% by 2050 (compared to the 2005/2007 period). Even with adherence to a dietary “minimum consensus” among nutrition experts, that was used to model the impact of diets, the targeted maximum temperature increase of 2% is not feasible. Only a purely plant-based diet brings this scenario within the realm of possibility. For all other diets, compensation would have to be made in the other areas in order to achieve the climate targets.
…and conducive to a healthy life?
The high proportion of animal products – especially meat – is not only environmentally and climate damaging in production, but also problematic in consumption. If the consumption of meat were to be reduced globally to the recommended “minimum consensus”, then not only would disease-related costs (treatment and care costs, productivity decline) decrease, but life expectancy would also increase. However, this would require a 56% reduction in meat consumption, a 25% increase in the consumption of fruits and vegetables, and a 15% reduction in calorie intake overall. The positive effects on health and the health system are even higher for diets that completely avoid meatand highest for diets that completely avoid animal products.
What to do with all of this?
Given the negative impact of the food sector on climate, land use, health, biodiversity, water and chemical usage, the food sector should be at the core of policy initiatives that strive for a more sustainable society and economy. Actually, this is far from what we are observing. While a certain change in perception among policymakers is discernable, most initiatives follow the traditional growth paradigm and prioritise food safety and security. While the latter two are of utmost importance, current agricultural practices and policies as well as industrial policy interventions tend to undermine these objectives by not distinguishing between plant and animal based products. Consequently, a large share of subsidies – about 50% in Europe (Greenpeace, 2017) – still promotes activities that are not sustainable but harmful for the environment, the climate and humans.
Still the insight that changing our food system is a quintessential measure to keep the climate in check, interventions may pay off much faster than in other sectors:
- Changing our diets – i.e. increasing the plant-based share of food consumed – to become more sustainable not only helps the climate but increases public health and life expectancy, reduces biodiversity loss, safes water etc. There are few policy interventions that have as many positive effects.
- Changing diets can happen over night. Understanding the impact of our diets and the food system motivates a growing number of people to increase the plant-based share in their diets. Thus consumers are most likely a driving force in changing the food system.
- Changing diets not only decrease the damage done by our food system but frees massive areas of farmland that was used to produce animal feed. Renaturing and reforesting this land would create a huge carbon sink. This would put more ambitious strategies to limit the temperature increase within reach again (see Sun et al., 2022).
Changing the food system to become more sustainable would definitely benefit the planet, individuals and last but not least animals too.
In the next blog we will discuss where change might come from and which factors might disrupt the food value chain.
Daniel Boffey, EU spending tens of millions of euros a year to promote meat eating, Guardian, 14.2.2020, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/feb/14/eu-spending-tens-of-millions-of-euros-a-year-to-promote-meat-eating
Europäische Kommission, Der Europäische Grüne Deal, Brüssel, den 11.12.2019 COM(2019) 640 final, https://eur-lex.europa.eu/resource.html?uri=cellar:b828d165-1c22-11ea-8c1f-01aa75ed71a1.0021.02/DOC_1&format=PDF
Europäische Kommission, „Vom Hof auf den Tisch“ – eine Strategie für ein faires, gesundes und umweltfreundliches Lebensmittelsystem, COM(2020) 381 final, Brüssel, 2020, https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?qid=1590404602495&uri=CELEX%3A52020DC0381
Greenpeace, Feeding the Problem: Folgen der Europäischen Agrarpolitik, 2019, https://www.greenpeace.de/presse/publikationen/feeding-problem
- Poore, T. Nemecek, Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers, Science 01 Jun 2018, Vol. 360, Issue 6392, https://science.sciencemag.org/content/360/6392/987
Springmann, M.. Charles, H., Godfray, J., Rayner, M., Scarborough, P., Analysis and valuation of the health and climate change co-benefits of dietary change, PNAS, 2016, https://www.pnas.org/content/pnas/early/2016/03/16/1523119113.full.pdf
Sun, Z., Scherer, L., Tukker, A., Spawn-Lee, S. A., Bruckner, M., Gibbs, H. K, Behrens, P., Dietary change in high-income nations alone can lead to substantial double climate dividend, Nature Food, volume 3, pages 29–37, 2022.