By Hanna Vogt
We are living in unsettling times. The rise of climate change, accelerating rates of biodiversity decline and species extinction make for an uncertain future. Many 21st century problems may seem overwhelmingly complex – but rethinking the systems of how and what we are farming will help us achieve a healthier, equitable, and more secure future.
What and how we farm is important – not only for our own health, but also for the environment when you consider the ecological and carbon cost of agriculture. More than 30% of the world’s land surface is being used for crops and livestock production, whilst agriculture accounts for about one quarter of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Of those, 75% derive from the production of animal-based foods. Modern livestock agriculture requires huge amounts of land and water, also contributing to air and groundwater pollution. Therefore, generally animal-based products have a greater carbon footprint than plant-based ones.
However, the consumption of ‘exotic’ vegetables like avocados in Europe also has a carbon cost, but for different reasons. For one they have to travel a long way to end up on our plate and huge swathes of land have been deforested to grow avocados. In Mexico, our love of avocados has partly led to the legal and illegal clearing of hundreds of acres of forests, reducing the local biodiversity and contributing to deforestation. Sadly, having smashed avocado on toast with poached eggs and a cup of coffee for breakfast has quite far-reaching consequences.
Besides environmental and socio-economic calamities related to global land use and food consumption patterns, we are living through a pandemic that is turning life as many of us have known it upside down. Covid-19 has reminded many of us more than ever of the importance of our underlying health conditions.
For years, the top causes of worldwide deaths have been cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, different kinds of cancer, diabetes, and kidney diseases – all closely linked to lifestyle and dietary habits. A study released in 2019 by the Lancet revealed that unhealthy diets are accounting for more deaths than any other factor on a global scale. Unhealthy diets include more processed foods, leading to both undernutrition and increased metabolic risk factors such as high blood pressure, obesity, and increased blood levels of glucose and fat. So how is climate change related to our diets and health?
Food and land use systems
The carbon cost of different food products, such as the difference between dairy milk and oat milk – are fairly straightforward. However, ‘bigger picture’ connections between environmental health and our own are less straightforward. Thankfully, The Food and Land Use Coalition (FOLU) is here to help us understand. FOLU presents several solutions which could help countries achieve the much-needed transformation of our current food and land use systems.
‘Food and land use systems’ describe the sum of all aspects from the production to consumption and disposal of food. FOLU argues that re-organising food and land use systems, adapting and mitigating to climate change, protecting biodiversity and improving the quality of diets and food security is possible. The ultimate goal is to change people’s diets to a plant-based and more local form of nutrition. Reducing the amount of land and resources used to produce animal-based products and lowering the carbon footprint of our diets.
Such a shift would also have a positive impact on socio-economic issues. Currently, land and food use systems are not cost-effective. ‘Hidden’ costs are estimated to account for $12 trillion every year – thus surpassing the market value of the global food system of $10 trillion. The ‘hidden’ costs include environmental costs stemming from emissions and biodiversity loss due to land conversion and health costs caused by agricultural contamination and malnutrition (including undernourishment and obesity). Further, the ‘hidden’ costs include socio-economic costs in the form of poverty and inequality.
The way forward
FOLU’s Growing Better Report shows how this systemic transformation can be achieved. This transformation will require everyone to play their part – but governments and investors hold particular power and agency.
By enacting policies and regulations that are in line with scientific advice, governments can help change consumption patterns of individuals and investment trajectories of private investors. Governments can direct public procurement and taxing policies at creating healthier societies, protecting natural assets as well as scaling up research and development for regenerative forms of farming. They can issue clear health guidelines so that people can make well-informed food choices. Governments can subsidise the production and commerce of nutritious local foods and invest in rural infrastructure and education, so that local farmers are supported instead of left behind.
There are new business opportunities for investors within this transformation, such as circular economy mechanisms that are set on local supply chains and resource looping. By adopting these, investors can help to cut down food waste, reduce environmental degradation and ensure people’s access to nutritious, affordable food.
If governments and major corporations commit, all of this is within our reach – and even cost-effective. Even though most of us might not be politicians or big investors, we still invest with our everyday food purchases. It may seem small, but in accumulation it really matters what we eat.
Graphic courtesy of Alice Eaves