How the Global Food Industry Can Make or Break the Fight Against Climate Change

The food industry can make or break our fight against climate change in many ways. The world is at quite the precipice today: high populations and global income mean we need to produce more food; increased food production leads to compounding biodiversity loss and climate change acceleration. 

Our food systems are effectively the world’s largest production line. They generate enough greenhouse gases to heat the planet above the 1.5ºC mark — and that’s even if other sources of these gases, like fossil fuels and manufacturing, were eliminated.

Our approach to food production has gone through many changes. In the beginning, we assumed that it was inevitable for some part of nature to be destroyed when trying to feed the population. But the alarming rate of natural degradation directly caused by food production put paid to that. 

Next, we started thinking up ways to produce food without destroying the planet. This was a positive step up from our previous stage — and one that we saw many successes in. Efficient agriculture, using existing croplands instead of razing down forests, and sustainable intensification are scientifically proven ways of doing this. 

Despite this, the threat continues to grow because food production has done so much damage already that it makes little sense to play the neutral game. Instead, the time is ripe for investigating ways of food production that not only not destroy the planet but restores it. The stakes are high, but the lever is impactful enough to make a change — so we may as well turn it in the right direction.

Can we feed a healthy diet to a population of 10 billion within planetary boundaries?

Planetary boundaries attempt to identify sustainability indicators at a global scale and their tipping points. They balance the resilience and stability of the Earth and its systems — land, atmosphere, ocean, and life. Naturally, then, violating these boundaries could have irreversible environmental impacts. But by 2050, when the world population is expected to hit 10 billion, how can we maintain balance?

To understand the relation between these and food production, scientists created representations of four of the interlinked planetary boundaries — biosphere integrity, freshwater use, land system change, and nitrogen flows. They came to the following conclusion:

Nearly half of our current food production was entirely dependent on flouting planetary boundaries. 

In global hotspot regions, many of them in Asia, local boundaries were also disregarded in tandem with planetary boundaries to keep up with a burgeoning population. In general, this also means that food was being grown in conditions that violate planetary boundaries. 

So why not respect planetary boundaries, right? The answer is a lot more complicated than that. In the ideal world, if the boundaries were strictly respected, then the current food system would only provide a balanced diet for 3.4 billion people. That’s roughly half the current population. 

In addition to this, we can expect environmental pressures caused by food production to go up by 50–92%. This is the worst-case scenario where there are no technological advances or attempts to mitigate disaster. Unfortunately, it seems as though we are heading in that same direction. And as previously mentioned, negating the impact on the environment isn’t enough — we must try to restore it. 

So, if we restricted food production to within planetary boundaries, how would we make up for the “loss”? According to the same scientists, the remaining necessary food production can be re-established through “transitions to more sustainable food production systems and demand patterns.” 

Reducing food loss and waste

One way to reduce food consumption and its accompanying environmental implications is to reduce food loss and waste. It is currently believed that more than a third of all food produced is lost before reaching the market or thrown away by homes. 

Scientists Dr. Springmann et al. deduced that, if food waste and loss were reduced by half, then environmental pressures applied by food production could go down as much as 6 to 16%. If it were reduced by 75%, which is the theoretical number, then pressures might go down by 9–24%. 

Increasing sustainable technological changes

It’s often said that technology can change the name of the game, and so is the case with food production. So far, our advancements have often been beneficial for humans but degrading for the environment in many ways. The time is now ripe to create technology that balances the scale, even tips it in favor of the environment while sustaining the global population. 

Technological advancements can improve production efficiency while lowering the environmental effect per unit of food produced. Dr. Springmann et al. identified technology-first measures, which include: 

  • increasing crop yields to reduce the need for additional croplands
  • improving water management to better the utilization of rainwater
  • creating changes in irrigation, fertilization, and cropping to reduce emissions 

Encouraging global dietary changes

Dietary improvements that lead to healthier diets can help to lessen the food system’s environmental effect. This is especially true when ecologically intensive goods, such as animal products, are substituted with less ecologically intensive foods. 

Moving to a plant-based diet—less meat and more vegetables, fruits, and legumes—has the most positive impact as it can reduce environmental pressures by 6–22%. Lower consumption of meat in itself is a powerful change in food production. When paired with more plant-based meals, it can have positive compounding effects that can reduce the impact of food production on the environment. 

Better separate or together?

Dr. Springmann et al.’s analysis clarifies that the most impact can be created if all the measures are combined. Each of these measures contributes to reductions in separate individual indicators, such as GHG emissions. Reduction of food loss and waste holds sway over overall reductions. A synergic combination of these measures is predicted to be able to keep food production within planetary boundaries. 

The good news is that many of these measures are already being implemented in bits and pieces across the world. Younger generations are increasingly opting for plant-based diets over traditionally meat-centric ones. Entire countries are improving their water resource management, reducing their food waste, and overhauling their use of fertilizers to reduce water pollution. 

However, the challenges lie in uniting these efforts at a global level and leveling the playing field. Many positive advancements often tend to favor already prosperous countries — but the real impact is to be had when nutritious food supplies and environmentally-friendly technologies are made accessible and normalized even in low-income countries.

A global exchange of ideas, international support mechanisms, and stringent regulations are the way to go. This ideally flows both ways, where all countries bring forth their best practices without deferring to the most prosperous ones as is traditionally done. Many “low-income” countries have distinctly environment-first practices that can be capitalized upon and globalized with the help of modern technology. 

The final word

Implementing these actions will need all hands-on deck, from farmers to policymakers, individuals to business leaders. We’re at a turning point in terms of food production. If we continue the way we’ve been going, we might well bring the demise of the planet on us a lot faster. But if we make positive changes, we’ll set off a series of motions that can revolutionize the food industry and deter climate change.