Why Food Is Important for Fixing Climate Change

by Patty Fong

Published: 9/19/19, Last updated: 9/20/19

Food and climate change are two sides of the same coin. Each day, across the world, land and water resources are being exploited faster than ever before, causing shortages and emitting large quantities of greenhouse gases, all in the name of putting food on our plates. At the same time, climate change is leading to massive losses in biodiversity and natural ecosystems which are, in turn, rapidly degrading our ability to produce food.

If you want to play a part in tackling climate change, then we need to talk about why food is important.

How Our Food System Affects Climate Change

Food production has become more complex

The ways in which our food is grown, processed, packaged, transported, distributed, paid for, consumed, and wasted is complex and — thanks to the ubiquity of the industrial, agricultural model — has already created many negative environmental impacts. Making fresh food available all year round already carries carbon miles. Climate change will further undermine how natural resources are managed.

Consumer demand in emerging economies is growing

As hundreds of millions of people are lifted from poverty into the middle class, supply chains are quickly developing to meet demand for meat and soy (which can, in turn, be used for animal feed). But, the tragic fires in the Amazon are a stark reminder that producing food for a growing and more affluent world comes with social, ethical and environmental costs.

Trade is being disrupted

Climate change will shape the future of supply-chains and the flow of finance worldwide. It is already changing people’s access to food, whether from the inability to plant new crops or the loss of harvests from flooding and other extreme weather events.

There are gaps in the economic picture

The price — or rather the “true cost” — we associate with food production needs to be revisited. Instead of just accounting for the profits made and the quantity of goods created, we will also need to think about the quality and nutritional value as well as the environmental, social and human costs involved.

Conflict and food security are inextricably linked

Conflict is often compounded by climate shocks, like drought, exacerbating the forcible displacement of people, food security and disrupting livelihoods. Migration like this also creates broad social, cultural, and economic losses, including the loss of knowledge of how to farm in specific and changing landscapes.

Urbanization is changing our connection to nature

Cities are adapting to increased demands for food from their growing populations but, in the process, we are losing our connection as a society to how food is grown, to traditional or indigenous knowledge about food production and, more broadly, to our connection to the natural world.

Technology isn’t the silver bullet

Technology and innovation are important tools to achieve sustainable food systems in the face of global warming but unequal power relations are already a big problem in the world of food. We need to assess who owns the technology, how accessible it is and ensure it is managed in a way that promotes fairness and environmental sustainability.

There are more and more people to feed

Nutritious diets that reflect what can be grown or sourced sustainably with a country’s local context and culture need to be at the heart of food security plans and policies worldwide as we respond to population growth. Only then can we shift from thinking how “we” will feed 9 billion to how 9 billion will feed themselves.

Wasting the possibilities

Not only can agriculture and food waste provide biomass for energy production, it could also be used for more regular composting. Better storage and more energy-efficient transport could also support longer shelf life and improve small-holder farmer access to markets. There’s also much more we could do with so-called “imperfect” produce.

There are unequal consequences

Climate change impacts the poorest and vulnerable communities the most — from small farmers to women. To reverse the trend of deepening inequality between (and within) high-income and low-income economies, the challenges of social justice, fairness, and inclusiveness in the way we produce and source food must be tackled.

Ultimately, by looking at climate from the perspective of food, we can spot different ways to come together and drive change. It’s clear that by addressing how the system works as a whole we could open up a range of ways to adapt and mitigate some of the worst impacts of our changing environment. Not only could we reduce greenhouse gas emissions and replenish and protect the earth, we could protect livelihoods and communities and ensure everyone has access to nutritious food and more. As such, making sure our food systems are sustainable, healthy, secure and fair in the face of climate change is one of the most defining issues of our time.

This piece was contributed by the Global Alliance for the Future of Food

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