What We Eat is Destroying Our Planet


José Luis Chicoma

Executive Director of Ethos Public Policy Lab

There will be irreversible damage to our planet if we don’t radically change our behavior and policies within 12 years. This statement was not taken from a protest; it was the urgent takeaway from the special report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which reviewed the work of close to 100 experts and more than 6,000 studies.

Are our governments, as well as we as individuals, capable of being smart and level headed enough to accelerate the implementation of solutions to help reverse the situation we have created? This is perhaps the most significant challenge that humanity has ever faced. Many individual lifestyle changes require large-scale collective action and rapid mindset changes. Some of these decisions, from the fuel we use to how we travel, from how we treat the land to what we eat, can also impact major interests across various sectors.

What we eat has a dramatic impact on climate change. Food systems represent anywhere from 19% to 29% (some studies estimate up to 50%) of global greenhouse gas emissions, which are one of the primary contributors to climate change. This includes agricultural emissions (cattle are one of the primary sources of greenhouse gases), the production, use, and abuse of chemical fertilizers, and the impact of the fuel used for tractors, the transportation of foodstuffs, the necessary refrigeration, and our kitchens. Deforestation, food loss, and food waste are also factors that directly and indirectly contribute to climate change.  

What changes must be made to the way that we eat and the way we produce what we eat? The following three proposals can help reverse the impact of food systems on climate change.

  1. Replace meat with fruits and vegetables

Our excessive consumption of meat, particularly red meat, is one of the primary sources of greenhouse gases, accounting for almost 15% of total global emissions. The cocktail of gases produced by the meat industry is lethal for the planet: cattle are a major source of methane gas, land and fuel use release carbon dioxide, and the use of fertilizers generates nitrogen oxide. High levels of meat consumption is also harmful to our personal well-being and to public health in general, as many people tend to consume more animal protein than necessary, which can lead to certain types of cancer, heart disease, obesity, and other health problems.

These days, there is a lot of talk about changing consumer preferences. This is more easily said than done, as billions of people have grown used accustomed to meat over the course of decades. And the consumption of meat products is rapidly increasing. At the beginning of the 1980s, average meat consumption in China was 13 kilograms per year. Currently, average meat consumption is 60 kilograms per year, and this number is expected to reach 90 kilograms per year by 2030. However, this isn’t simply an issue of preferences. Meat is often a necessary dietary component that allows low-income consumers to reach the recommended intake of proteins and micronutrients.

Yes, it is important to encourage change within consumer preferences through the use of dietary guidelines and communications campaigns implemented by celebrities and chefs, but these actions must be accompanied by structural changes. An initial step might be to eliminate market distortion created by the subsidies granted to livestock farmers, which results in the availability of low-cost meat products. This should include the elimination of direct and indirect subsidies, e.g. the substantial U.S. subsidies for corn, which has become the main feed for cattle over the past few decades. Steps must also be taken to increase the availability and affordability of healthy products, such as fruit and vegetables. It might also be time to consider implementing a tax on the least environmentally friendly products, such as meat, in order to use the proceeds to subsidize the healthiest fruits and vegetables. It is important to always consider the impact of these policies on the poorest members of the population.

  1. Agroecology that goes beyond climate-smart agriculture

Over the past few decades, one of the most pressing challenges has been how to feed an ever-increasing global population. The supposed solutions to this issue resulted in a vicious cycle of intensive agriculture, the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the implementation of monocultures and genetically modified crops, and more. This so-called “green revolution” increased productivity and yield, but came at an extremely high environmental cost, including soil degradation, water contamination, and the loss of biodiversity, as well as a drastic increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

In our efforts to identify a quick fix, we didn’t realize that the solution was right in front of us: nature and humane, efficient, and circular resource management. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) states that “agroecology is based on applying ecological concepts and principles to optimize interactions between plants, animals, humans and the environment while taking into consideration the social aspects that need to be addressed for a sustainable and fair food system.”

When managed well and adapted to the characteristics of each context, agroecology offers long-term productivity that connects food and nutrition, sustainability, and biodiversity. In practice, agroecology involves campesinos, farmers, and researchers working together to implement traditional and modern techniques that are adapted to the specific conditions of each context in an effort to improve the use and management of land, water, energy, and other resources. These efforts have the potential to lead to improved soil fertility, nutrient recycling, and increased biodiversity without relying on chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and other technologies that are extremely harmful to the land and the environment.

Latin America has many practical examples of agroecology, including the re-emergence of the waru waru farming technique in the Peruvian Andes. More than 3,000 years old, this ancestral technique involves the use of platforms of soil that are surrounded by water, which allows for productive harvests despite the inhospitable environment at altitudes of almost 4,000 meters. In Mexico and other countries, another example of agroecology is seen in shade-grown, polyculture coffee cultivation, which is extremely different from the modern, unshaded monoculture system and its heavy use of agrochemicals and negative impacts on deforestation and erosion.

It is important to separate agroecology from climate-smart agriculture, which is a broader term that refers to the transformation and reorientation of agricultural systems to ensure food safety within the context of a changing climate. The tepid approach behind so-called “climate-smart agriculture” does nothing but ensure the production of “climate-stupid foodstuffs – such as the mass-production of soy and corn for sustaining factory meat production and biodiesel.” Many organizations that support agroecology have denounced “climate-smart agriculture” as simply a way for multinational corporations to greenwash their activities that contribute to climate change, including the promotion of synthetic fertilizers, industrial meat production, and large-scale intensive agriculture.

  1. Structural changes to access and consumption that go beyond minimizing food waste

What’s every politician or bureaucrat’s favorite answer when asked about how to repair our food systems? Reduce food loss and waste, one of the favorite Sustainable Development Goals of international and multinational organizations. Government representatives proudly sign agreements and commitments on the issue at conferences on food systems, and the topic is prioritized at high-level international meetings.

The data is compelling. A third of food produced globally is lost or wasted after harvest, equivalent to 1.3 billion metric tons of food per year. Reducing the amount of food lost or wasted can result in less pollution and decrease pressure on natural resources.

However, reducing food waste and loss ignores a larger structural pattern of excessive production intended for a certain segment of the population and/or meant to sustain animals and cars instead of humans. Data from the FAO shows that 2,800 kilocalories of food are produced per day for each person on the planet, but 821 million people suffer from undernourishment. The problem isn’t productivity or food waste, but rather poverty, inequitable access and consumption of healthy foods, and the inefficient and exclusionary use of land, water, energy, and natural resources.

It is important to take action. It is important to not get distracted from advocating for structural changes in the production, distribution, and access to food systems. It is equally important to ensure that politicians and multinational corporations aren’t able to use reducing food waste as a get out of jail free card. If a company produces highly-processed, unhealthy foods, they cannot wash their hands of the issue by claiming to have an innovative platform that reduces food waste. The solution must be changing their products to be healthier. If a company’s products accelerate climate change and reduce global biodiversity, it is not enough for them to establish an alliance to reduce food waste or support food banks. Their environmental footprint will continue to destroy the planet.

Your personal consumption matters, but your vote matters more.

Yes, personal decisions impact sustainability efforts. Our personal preferences and consumption patterns matter. However, the current focus on an individual’s personal decisions is excessive. The bottom line is that our governments must make decisions regarding food systems. In light of this, as individuals, our most urgent responsibility is to vote and to hold our elected officials accountable for the decisions that impact the planet.

Publicado en: Animal Político