Eating on the Brink: How Food Could Prevent a Climate Disaster

To address climate change, we must talk about food.


Last month, as hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to demand action to prevent catastrophic climate change, I was 30,000 feet in the sky, the jet-fueled irony not lost on me. I was heading to Paris to talk food and climate change with 260 scientists, civil society leaders, and advocates from 40 countries at a meeting hosted by the Global Alliance for the Future of Food. The overarching message was clear: If we want to address climate change, we have to talk about food.

What we eat is responsible for a whopping one-third of all atmospheric warming today. Global meat and dairy production together accounts for roughly 15 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions, making the livestock industry worse for the climate than every one of the world’s planes, trains, and cars combined.

At the meetings, Christine Figueres, who led the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, reminded us that climate stability requires limiting warming to under 1.5 degrees Celsius. To do that, we need to start reversing current emissions trajectory, start a downward turn, by 2020. Yes, 2020. That means engaging every sector, food included.

“We must all swallow the alarm clock,” Figueres said. “We cannot give it to the next generation. We must solve this.”

You might be thinking, “But we have to eat. We don’t have a choice the way we do for (ahem) flights to Paris.” Except we do. If we’re lucky, we choose what we eat three times a day. And we make choices as societies all the time when we decide what research to fund, which farms to subsidize, and what foods to serve in our schools and institutions.

So how do we change food and farming to help prevent catastrophic climate change? First, we need an absolute reduction in methane and nitrous oxide—gases with as much as 298 and 36 times the heat trapping power of carbon dioxide respectively—and food is key. To do this, we’ll have to slow, then reverse, the spread of the industrial livestock model into new markets around the globe.

We’ll also have to halt the growing demand for meat and dairy that’s sending soy for feed production soaring. And, we’ll need to dramatically reduce industrial farms’ use of synthetic fertilizers, the overuse of which releases significant nitrous oxide into the atmosphere.

We also must stop agribusiness from encroaching on forests and carbon-rich peatland, as it is with palm plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia. As the processed foods industry increasingly turns to this relatively cheap palm oil, production is rising. Palm oil is now nearly ubiquitous in cookies, granola bars, and other processed foods. (Like your peanut butter pre-mixed? Thank palm oil). We need to reduce demand—for us consumers that means going for less processed fare—and call on suppliers to source only from sustainably harvested palm.

Christine Figueres noted that we also must also cut—by half—the amount of food we waste, which stands at a staggering 30 to 50 percent globally. This means those emissions associated with wasted food are contributing to the climate crisis while conferring no social benefit, but it also means food is adding up in landfills, where as it decomposes converts to the powerful greenhouse gas methane.

In fact, food is the single largest component of solid waste found in municipal landfills, according to the NRDC. That means addressing waste at home, ensuring that farmers have access to markets, and ending our obsession with picture-perfect produce. Like the recent consumer campaign launched in France says, we need to embrace fruits et légumes moches.

And, we’ll need to manage farm and ranchland to maintain carbon in the soils. “Carbon is like real estate,” Figueres said. “It’s all about location, location, location. Carbon in the atmosphere is your enemy. Carbon in the soil is your friend.” At the meetings outside of Paris, experts shared research on how agroecological farming practices and managed grazing can promote greater soil organic matter, AKA carbon, and how these practices might enable us to sequester a significant portion of atmospheric carbon, especially in the short term, when we need it most.

At the heart of these solutions are farmers. By 2050, there will be 750 million peasant farmers—and they’re vital to securing a resilient food supply and ensuring that we store carbon in our soils, stressed Dr. Sonja Vermeulen, a leading food and climate expert who spoke at the summit.

I also met with Elizabeth Mpofo, the international coordinator of the global peasant movement, La Via Campesina. With 164 member organizations worldwide, La Via Campesina’s 200 million members are on the frontlines of the fight against catastrophic climate change. As Mpofo reminded us, we can’t have a sustainable food system without small-holder farmers.

Protecting indigenous communities is also key. Phrang Roy of the Indigenous Platform for AgroBiodiversity, who I also interviewed, has said, “Seventy-five percent of the world’s biodiversity today is located on indigenous people’s lands… The loss of this land could mean the loss of planet Earth as we know it.”

Meanwhile, those of us living in the United States and much of the industrialized world must radically change our diets, shifting away from diets filled with processed foods and loaded with industrial meat products toward whole foods and plant-centered fare. For those who eat meat, it means eating less and better: grass-fed beef, for instance, and organic-certified poultry and pork.

And so, there is a kind of glorious coincidence: Every one of the bold actions around food is also a step forward for farmers, communities and our health. Oh, and these changes can be delicious, too!

Today, the global food sector is an extractive industry destroying forests to make way for commodities (think: corn, soy, and palm fruit) plantations. It relies on polluting natural gas or gasifying coal to generate nitrogenous fertilizer. It devastates topsoil and dries up aquifers—irreplaceable in our lifetimes. Instead, we need a regenerative food system—and we already know many of the pathways to get us there.

Thankfully, this message is resonating. Ten years ago, when I was starting to report on my book Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork, I found virtually no food advocacy groups running a major climate campaign and few environmental groups turning their attention to agribusiness. Now, many are.

Ten years ago, policy responses to food’s impact on climate were barely a blip on the radar. Today, there are groups like California Climate and Agriculture Network that has real policy in play to encourage farmers to embrace more climate-friendly practices. And at the last climate negotiations in Paris, 38 countries and provinces signed the “4 per 1,000” commitment to increase soil fertility through a focus on carbon sequestration in soils.

Summits like the ones I attended near Paris are bringing experts together to explore real action; global leaders are taking note. In President Obama’s first public presentation abroad since leaving office, his remarks zeroed in on how food will be impacted by climate change and how agriculture contributes to the crisis, noting the sector is the second-largest contributor to emissions after energy—and those emissions are going up. And this week, I joined with more than 200 others to co-sign a letter published in The Lancet calling on the World Health Organization to confront factory farming.

I’m heartened. I am also frustrated to the bone. We don’t have the luxury of time. To date, the major global climate negotiations—known as COPs—have largely ignored tackling food sector emissions. The next COP will take place in Bonn, Germany this November. Hopefully, food will finally be on the menu. It has to be. The clock is ticking.

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  1. Wednesday, May 24th, 2017
    Exactly right! The organic label has awakened millions to the possibility of producing food in a more climate and environment friendly way. We are indeed running out of time, and a revolution is needed on many fronts all at once. Indigenous farmers and marginalized people in privileged countries have to be the leaders.
  2. Sunday, June 11th, 2017
    Probably the single most productive change in farming practices to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions which comes about from tilling the soil eiyjd be to adopt generically engineered crops, which can be grown and harvested using no till. No till is virtually non existent in agriecology. GE crops also yield from 15-40% more than agrevology. That reduces the need to cut down forests for new arable land, preserving trees as carbon sinks. Almost all other other measures are modest to insignificsnt compared to these two reforms.
  3. Meredith Kaufman
    Saturday, July 1st, 2017
    Thanks for this important piece, Anna. However, why have you not mentioned the importance of ORGANIC agriculture? Organic ag will be a huge determinate in our battle against climate change. To write about sustainable ag without mentioning organic seems to be a bit off the mark.