Climate change and the food factor: the planet needs a new type of agriculture
While anyone still wasn’t clear on the urgency to act to stop climate change, another summer of extreme weather in the northern hemisphere has given us a glimpse of the immediacy of the threat. Catastrophic floods killed dozens and caused massive damage in Germany, Belgium and the UK; forest fires have swept across vast swathes of the Mediterranean, devastating rural communities; record heat waves hit generally cold northern latitude regions in Canada and Siberia.
By now, most policymakers have realized that it is high time we took action. The upcoming UN climate change conference COP26, to be held in Glasgow from October 31 to November 12, will be an opportunity to focus attention on real policy change. Still, there is a glaring hole in the ecological emergency debate, which tends to focus on fossil fuel producers, automakers, and heavy industries like steel and shipbuilding. Of course, we must continue to increase the production of renewable energy, but there is one major factor contributing to the environmental disaster that never gets the attention it deserves: agriculture.
“Climate change and food are closely linked,” says Marta Messa, director of Slow Food Europe. “The way we produce, process, distribute and consume food […] can contribute to or help cope with climate change.
We should be talking about the impact on the planet of industrial and intensive agriculture – the type that cultivates vast amounts of land using machines, pesticides, fertilizers, etc. Its relationship to the climate crisis is well documented in the scientific literature. The global food system is responsible for about 26% of human-made carbon emissions, including CO2, methane and nitrous oxide. And this is just one example of its negative impacts on the environment: others include loss of biodiversity, desertification, deterioration of ecosystems, soil and water pollution. Fertilizers, for example, are among the main culprits in bee mortality.
According to Elena Višnar Malinovská, head of the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Climate Action, food production and distribution systems are responsible for 60% of territorial biodiversity loss and 24% of gas emissions Greenhouse effect. “We have to put an end to industrial agriculture,” she said.
What is particularly striking is how little the sector has improved in environmental terms over the past decades, even as other industries are making strides in reducing their carbon footprints. Why have policymakers and the public given a free pass to industrial agriculture for so long? This can be explained in part by the ultimate importance placed on the need for humans to be well nourished. “We all need to eat …” is a common refrain.
But there are other forces at work. The EU’s common agricultural policy, for example, earmarked more than € 100 billion for “climate spending” between 2014 and 2020 – only to observe that agricultural greenhouse gas emissions have not budged. And while EU governments have at least attempted to set emission reduction targets for other sectors by 2030, they have not set targets for agriculture.
Another type of food production is possible, based on sustainability and ecology, and led by conscientious small producers. Some call it agroecology: a type of agriculture that applies ecological concepts to optimize the relationships between plants, animals, humans and the environment. To take just one example, agroecology includes the targeted planting of forests in hot spots of environmental pressures to sequester agricultural emissions. But it also means eating healthier – eating a diet that includes more fruits and vegetables, ideally from local sources, while limiting both lower and higher quality animal products.
Scientists have started documenting how non-industrial agriculture is more sustainable: recent study finds Sustainability of nature study, small-scale farming offers more yields and is better for preserving biodiversity.
Much of the industry, however, is moving aggressively in the opposite direction, focusing on technological solutions rather than a locally driven ecological transition. Instead of placing the relationship between man and nature at the center of efforts to make the food industry sustainable, attention is increasingly focused on genetic innovation, food additives and precision agriculture. .
The multiple environmental crises we are facing will not be solved by a utopian technological solution to save us from the brink of disaster. We must face all aspects of our lives that contribute to ecological degradation and climate change. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and do the hard work it takes to change the way we live in harmony with our environment – and make our food more sustainable, respectful and environmentally friendly. It is high time that agriculture got the attention it needs at COP26.
Be part of the solution by signing our Slow Food climate pledge here.