It is well documented that our addiction to meat and dairy is harming the planet, emitting nearly 15% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. Campaigns like Veganuary encourage us to switch to plant-based diets in order to reduce our impact on the climate. Because of this, veganism is on the rise and many of us, especially in January, are thinking more consciously about the way we eat.
But unfortunately, a reliance on meat and dairy isn’t the only climate issue facing our food system.
One of the most major climate issues impacting our diet is the change in weather patterns, which is altering how much food we can grow, and where we can grow it. Extreme weather events such as droughts or floods may cause crops to fail or be ruined. Earlier this year, unprecedented heatwaves in India reduced wheat production so much that wheat exports were banned to many countries, and increased cyclones in recent years have led to devastating swarms of locusts, destroying crops in East Africa. As well as extreme events like this, changing weather patterns globally are altering the regions that are suitable for growing many of our staple crops. While this may have some benefits for farmers in the Northern hemisphere, it would be a catastrophe for farmers in regions that are already warm, as their land becomes unsuitable for agriculture.
“The South Asian nation experienced its hottest March on record, shrivelling the wheat crop that the world was relying on to alleviate a global shortage”Bloomberg
Another major issue impacting our food security is our reliance on monocultures – huge areas of farmland devoted to a single crop – and very limited variety amongst those crops. This lack of diversity in what we grow can make our food supply less resilient to climate change, and much more susceptible to being wiped out by pests or diseases. To make matters worse, climate change also increases the risk of crop pests and diseases spreading in the first place.
Waste, Loss, and Degradation
A huge amount of food is wasted well before it reaches our fridges or even our supermarkets. Over 15% of all food produced worldwide may be wasted during harvesting, according to a report by WWF and Tesco. Because of the energy, water and land used to produce food that is never even eaten, food waste amounts to a staggering 6% of global emissions.
If that wasn’t enough, use of monocultures (those bad guys again!) and pesticides are contributing to the biodiversity crisis we are facing in addition to the climate crisis. Nitrogen fertilisers from farmland often end up making their way into rivers and these are causing water pollution and leaving ‘dead zones’ in our rivers, lakes and oceans. Finally, unsustainable farming practices are degrading our soil at an alarming rate.
While this all sounds very scary, there are lots of positive changes happening within agriculture that could transform the way we farm for the better. For example, we have previously written about the benefits of agroforestry in increasing farms’ resilience to climate change and improving their biodiversity.
In North America, some black women-led farms are using regenerative farming practices to reduce emissions, provide sustainable food security and combat historic racism for communities of colour (via All We Can Save).
Scientists are combatting our reliance on monocultures and limited crop varieties by introducing wild wheat varieties to existing crop breeding programmes, and breeding perennial grains. Perennial crops (crops that don’t need to be replanted every year, but instead live for many years) reduce the need for pesticides, protect soil from erosion and reduce costs for farmers.
Training in sustainable farming provided by education charity Camfed is helping tens of thousands of farmers in Africa increase yields while building climate resilience, and reducing agricultural food waste.
“Last year alone, we managed to reduce the greenhouse gases emissions in the Zimbabwean agriculture sector by 10%, which is a lot for a company that is only three years old.”Forget Shareka, a member of the CAMFED Association and founder of Chasi Foods
Are food miles a problem?
Advice on how to eat sustainably often includes trying to source food locally. However, ‘food miles’ actually make up far less of our food’s climate impact than we might think. Data show that what we eat, rather than where we get it from, has a far greater impact on the climate.
“Substituting less than one day per week’s worth of calories from beef and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a plant-based alternative reduces GHG emissions more than buying all your food from local sources.”Our World in Data
However, certain foods do have a high transport cost. Although most foods are transported by road or by boat, some foods with very short shelf lives, such as green beans or berries, are transported by air, hugely increasing their emissions.
Although it might seem counter-intuitive, sometimes more food miles actually means fewer emissions: the energy used to heat greenhouses in colder countries like the UK or Sweden in winter is thought to be higher than the energy to import food from warmer countries.
Reduce animal products in your diet where you can. Why not try some of the Veganuary recipe ideas for plant based meals?
Check out this chart from Our World in Data to see which foods have the highest and lowest environmental impacts.
If you can afford it, buy organic food or try an organic veg-box delivery to reduce pesticide and fertiliser use, food packaging and food miles all in one go
Listen to this clip to learn more about innovative farming of insects to provide sustainable protein sources.