The author would like to acknowledge the contributions of Daniel O’Connell whose ideas influenced the framing of this article.
When most people think of climate change, they think of fossil fuels and electricity production. Electricity production, however, is just one sector of many that are contributing to climate change. While the world is not on pace in the energy transition, there has been some progress including lower costs and increased deployment of renewable energy as well as significant strides in the public discourse around the need to phase out fossil fuels.
Unfortunately, electricity production isn’t our only energy problem. Food systems are energy by other means – calories. Currently, the process of getting those calories planted or raised, cultivated, harvested, packaged, shipped, and delivered to hungry stomachs emits about one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, even if we succeed in a full-scale energy transition in the near future, our food systems alone would push warming past 1.5°C to nearly 2°C, breaching the goals set by the Paris Agreement. Yet, the conversation on transforming the agrifood sector is just beginning at the COP level.
The impact of food systems
Our food systems impact much more than just climate change, of course. The current agricultural system is the primary driver of global biodiversity loss, the biggest consumer of – increasingly precious – fresh water, a major contributor to ocean dead zones, is wildly distorting phosphorus and nitrogen cycles, and is depleting our soil at a rate that will leave most of our soil used for farming degraded by 2050.
Beyond environmental concerns, the impacts on human well-being have, in many ways, been detrimental to nutrition, social equity, and human rights. Food insecurity has been on the rise all over the world in recent years – starting even before the pandemic. According to the UN’s World Food Programme, over 700 million people face chronic food insecurity and, earlier this year, the UN Secretary-General warned that our “food systems are broken.” Case in point, the world lets about one-third of food production go to waste while hundreds of millions go hungry. In other words, we have enough food to end hunger – we just haven’t prioritized solving the issue. A frustrating, to say the least, fact for those who face food insecurity.
And yet, there are other stakeholders in our food systems that have no say and often get little attention – the animals we eat. The industrial model of raising livestock has led us to the point where 96% of mammals on earth are humans, livestock, and pets - just 4% of mammals are wild. Many of the animals, regardless of their health status, are pumped with antibiotics to account for the close quarters they live in (as well as to promote growth in the animals), providing a perfect “training ground” for bacteria - allowing for quick mutations that can produce antibiotic-resistant bacteria and other disease agents (collectively known as “superbugs”).
This has left the world frighteningly vulnerable to epidemics or even another pandemic arising from these conditions. The FAIRR Initiative, an investor network that raises awareness of the environmental, social, and governance risks in the food sector, estimated that, in 2020, 73% of the largest meat, fish, and dairy producers were at “high risk” of cultivating animal-borne human diseases. Furthermore, researchers have recently revealed that every year 18 billion animals are killed but never eaten; the meat goes to waste somewhere between the slaughterhouse and stomachs. Considering all the animal feed, water, land, antibiotics, and other resources that go into raising these animals, this aspect of our food systems represents a level of excess in a time of scarcity that can only be described as insanity.
These facts are by no means an exhaustive list of all the issues with our food systems. It should be pointed out, for example, that the majority of people who are impacted by the local pollution of factory farms are disproportionately communities of color and low-income communities – the same communities that are also most impacted by the unequal distribution of nutrition (which is not the same as calories). It’s necessary to give this overview as most consumers live unaware of how detrimental our food systems have become to human and planetary well-being. But there should be no question as to the urgency of this issue.
Food systems at COP28
Encouragingly, COP28 will be the first to have a significant focus on food systems – a welcome spotlight on an issue that has been sidelined for far too long. The official agenda features a Food Day – a first for the COP process – and it will be the second COP at which a Food Systems Pavillion is present. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) will unveil its roadmap to achieving 1.5°C and eliminating world hunger; it is critical, then, that the roadmap includes ambitious targets for national food systems as well as clear objectives for reducing methane from food production.
Additionally, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Presidency, while not without its criticism pertaining to fossil fuel interests, has encouraged nations to sign a Declaration on Food Systems, Agriculture & Climate Action – a positive step in rallying international support for robust action. In response to a group of youth-led NGOs, the UAE has even committed to ensuring that a high percentage of available food at the conference will be plant-based. This is a small but meaningful step in recognizing the importance of plant-based diets for rich countries, a climate solution that could save around 100 gigatons of CO2-equivalent over a thirty-year period.
The food systems conversation is just beginning
All of this is a good start. But a start is all it is. Unlike the progress the world has made to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy, we really are just beginning COP-level conversations on food systems transformation. We are far behind in coming to terms with the destructive nature of the modern agriculture system, and therefore we must move quickly, with further emphasis on the subject in high-level agendas and international commitments.
Scientists at Project Drawdown have identified climate solutions in the food, agriculture, and land use sectors, all of which will be necessary to achieve international climate and development goals. Pathways for more sustainable and equitable food production already exist and must become central to international climate negotiations. The science is clear, we are far off track to meeting the goals set out under the Paris Agreement and we have not made significant strides in one of the most key sectors contributing to climate change. This COP is an opportunity to remedy that glaring omission and expedite the overhauling of our food systems. It’s not just the climate and the environment at stake – it’s over 700 million hungry people, too.
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