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OPINION: Let’s talk less about Big Macs and more about our global food system

by Jessica Fanzo | Johns Hopkins University
Monday, 16 September 2019 05:00 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A farmer harvests rice on a field at Khokana in Lalitpur, Nepal October 30, 2017. REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

This is about more than our individual preferences; it’s a fundamental question about the transformations we’ll need to make to our global food and land use systems

There’s been a lot of focus recently on eating habits. Following the release of a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on land use last month, the world’s media was flooded with discussion and debate about whether or not we need to stop eating meat as part of the global effort to face the climate crisis. Unsurprisingly, most of this coverage was filtered through the lens of our consumption patterns in Europe and North America. For example, one headline asked, “Can we eat Big Macs and still avoid climate chaos?”

This has provoked emotional responses from those on both sides of the debate. Unfortunately, the furore over hamburgers distracts our attention from a much bigger challenge: how to make use of the planet’s limited land to feed more than 9 billion people and still cut greenhouse gas emissions.

In other words, this is about much more than our individual preferences for burgers and steaks; it’s a fundamental question about the transformations we’ll need to make to our global food and land use systems to put healthy and nutritious food on peoples’ tables, deliver economic benefits, create jobs in rural communities and combat climate change, all at the same time.  

Our current systems are, simply put, not up to the task. On one hand, 60% of the world’s calories come from four staple crops: wheat, potatoes, rice and corn. As the impacts of climate change become more severe, affecting yields and lowering the nutritional content of what is grown, such a heavy reliance on so few staples will increasingly threaten our ability to provide healthy diets to the world’s population.

On the other hand, our global appetite for meat is growing. If this trend continues, it will perpetuate and expand land use practices that undermine our efforts to combat climate change. Indeed, it is estimated that around 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions are produced by the food and land use sector. Of that, cattle are responsible for around half of emissions from agricultural production, or about 6 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions in 2010, even before accounting for land use change.

The answer lies in diversifying the global diet, to lessen environmental and climate pressures and also make the world a healthier place. Yes, in many places, especially the United States and Canada, this will mean a reduction, not elimination, in the consumption of red meat. In other places, such as sub-Saharan Africa, this will actually require a small but necessary increase in animal-sourced foods for those that require additional nutrients vital for growth, development and productivity.

Every country, region and city will need to make the transition in its own way, in accordance with its own cultural and socio-economic environment. And each will arrive at different changes in what people eat, depending on their unique starting point. 

A new report highlights the steps necessary to achieve the needed transformation, which include reducing animal protein consumption in high income countries; increasing efficiency of livestock production practices; investing in sustainable ocean proteins; diversifying protein sources away from cattle and other ruminants; reducing food loss and waste; and incorporating more regenerative agricultural principals such as planting nitrogen-fixing legumes.

Achieving a global transition towards healthier diets will not be easy – but the cost savings provide excellent incentive. Achieving healthier, more diverse diets could result in global savings of $1.28 trillion by 2030 thanks to reducing the hidden costs of an unbalanced food system.

This is where the challenge becomes an opportunity. It is possible to feed over 9 billion people on the planet and limit the world to 1.5 degrees Celsius of climate heating. In fact, we could spare and restore to nature 1.5 billion hectares of land that would otherwise be used for farming by 2050. Even better, this can be done while dramatically reducing global food insecurity - enabling each person to eat a nutritious and balanced diet – and unlocking new business opportunities. But to start, we all need to look beyond our individual Big Macs and understand that we’re talking about much more than individual choices; this is about undertaking a global shift in our relationship with food and with each other.