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To fight climate change, policymakers should turn to food

Thursday, 24 May 2018 13:51 GMT

A villager dries persimmons on rooftop at a village in Guilin, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, China November 4, 2017. Picture taken November 4, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer

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While the current system makes food cheaper and more accessible, the unaccounted for damage on both the environment and human health comes at a far greater cost down the line

Communities across the world are becoming more interested in eating a healthy, nutritious, and low-footprint diet. But there remains a big disconnect between consumers, producers, and the impact current production and consumption patterns have on the environment and climate. What can you do? The good news is that fighting climate change can start with each meal.

From clearing forests to producing fertilizer to packaging food, global food production now contributes about 43 to 57 percent of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), according to a TEEBAgriFood Report due out June 5.

Corporations and large-scale producers are often subsidized to grow select staple crops, which are typically grown in monocultures—making the crops cheaper to produce, but also stripping the soils of nutrients. Today, one-third of the Earth’s soil is moderately to highly degraded, leaving our food with fewer nutrients to nourish us.

While this system makes food cheaper and more accessible right now, the unaccounted for damage on both the environment and human health comes at a far greater cost down the line.

Worldwide, six of the top eleven risk factors driving disease are diet-related. And the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates the global direct costs of diabetes to be more than US$827 billion per year. As processed foods replace fresh vegetables, meat, and grains, health problems associated with obesity and micronutrient deficiencies are increasing.

Continuing with business as usual in the global food system is not an option. Right now, around 40 percent of Earth’s available land is used for growing food. Experts are predicting that the global population will reach nearly 10 billion by the year 2050. To feed 10 billion the way we currently practice agriculture, we would need to increase food production by 70 percent. With cities already experiencing housing crises and farmers struggling to make an income in all parts of the world, expanding agriculture using conventional methods is unlikely.

We need dramatic food system change. One place to start is with food waste—approximately one-third of the food produced for human consumption every year gets lost or wasted. This is enough to feed the world’s hungry six times over. And as wasted food decomposes in landfills, it releases methane, which is 25-times more potent of a GHG than carbon dioxide. According to the EPA, landfills are the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the U.S.

A recent report by the U.N. Environment Initiative on The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity for Agriculture & Food (TEEBAgriFood) presents a new framework which looks at the full range of impacts of the food value chain from a systems perspective—from farm to fork to disposal. The report and its evaluation framework, funded by the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, aims to inform policymakers, researchers, and citizens of these real and unaccounted for costs of our food system.

A systems approach to the food value chain can help us better assess advantages, disadvantages, and risks associated with our interventions. This also allows us to develop solutions which promote positive change across and within multiple sectors at once—and multiple economies.

Farming is in a unique period of transition, and society has never been more equipped to adapt. Across the globe, innovators are rising to the challenge of rethinking our food system. Decisionmakers can create policies which promote sustainable farming methods and make it easier make healthier decisions, and eaters can use tools like the Double Pyramid to help make food choices which are both healthy for people and sustainable for the planet, as well as keep their carbon footprint and water footprint in mind while making food decisions each day.

There is so much that can be done to drive change in our food system and better nourish our bodies and planet—and it can start with every eater making informed decisions about each meal.

Danielle Nierenberg is the founder and president of Food TankEmily Payne is a food system writer and editor based in New York.