Last week, humanity got another wake-up call about climate change in the form of Sandy, the monster “Frankenstorm” that pounded the East Coast. Rising sea levels due to global warming, scientists say, are at least partially to blame for the intensity of the flooding in New York City and the Mid-Atlantic.
As it turns out, our food may have also played a part. A new report released last week suggests the global food system is taking a much higher toll on the environment than previously thought.
In its report, “Climate Change and Food Systems,” agriculture research organization CGIAR found food production was responsible for between 19 and 29 percent of humankind’s total greenhouse emissions.
“In terms of emissions, it is expansion of agriculture that makes an especially large impact on emissions, through destroying forests and other natural habitats that store a lot of carbon,” says Dr. Sonja Vermeulen, Head of Research at the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security, and the study’s lead author. “So growing more food on less land is a big priority. And as we all know, we need to be very careful about how we use fertilizers, pesticides, etc. to achieve those higher yields.”
That startling new CGIAR figure is as much as twice the estimate of greenhouse emissions from food given by the United Nations (14 percent) because it accounts for every aspect of food production and distribution—including growing crops and raising livestock, manufacturing fertilizer, and storing, transporting, and refrigerating food. Agriculture accounts for around 80 percent of these emissions, but the combined contribution of transportation, refrigeration, consumer practices and waste management is growing.
The eating habits of Americans likely contribute to the food system’s impact on the environment globally as well. For one, we waste between 40 and 50 percent of our food, which contributes significantly to food-related greenhouse gas emissions. Emissions from food waste in landfills, a problem the authors deem “avoidable,” accounts for 13 percent of total national food-related emissions and 2 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. We the consumers account for 60 percent of this waste.
One of the most high-impact changes Americans (and citizens of other wealthy nations) can make is to reduce their meat intake. A report published earlier this year on options for mitigating behavioral climate change found that global non-CO2 emissions could drop by more than 50 percent by 2055 if global meat demand dropped by just 25 percent per decade. Conversely, if meat consumption continues to rise at the current rate (corresponding with a global increase in income), greenhouse gas emissions would go up 76 percent.
One might conclude that simply transitioning to local and regional food systems is the best solution for the food emissions problem. But Dr. Lini Wollenberg, Research Associate Professor at the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, University of Vermont, says that is not necessarily the case. Even local food systems produce greenhouse gases.
“For example, growing food in the Northeast can involve greenhouses to extend the season that could produce emissions from heating,” says Wollenberg, who leads CCAFS’s (Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security) climate change mitigation work. “Or transportation [greenhouse gases] per unit product may be high for some local foods produced in small quantities and delivered around the region compared to foods that are transported in bulk. Or, perhaps, seasonal labor is transported from Jamaica annually.”
Much of the mitigation work is being done in developing nations, however, where agriculture is more prevalent and where smallholder farmers need access to the latest science, more resources and advanced technology.
“We are coming to terms with the fact that agriculture is a critical player in climate change,” Frank Rijsberman, CEO of the CGIAR Consortium, said in a press release. “Not only are emissions from agriculture much larger than previously estimated, but with weather records being set every month as regional climates adjust and reset, there is an urgent need for research that helps smallholder farmers adapt to the new normal.”
Are you surprised the food system contributes so much to global greenhouse gas emissions?
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Steve’s story about healthy fast food was anthologized in Best Food Writing 2011. His food and general interest stories regularly appear in Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other places. Email Steve | @thebostonwriter
- Nature & Environment
- climate change