But there is a third critical dimension that is left out of most of these conversations – and that is producing, transporting, and consuming our food in ways that contribute to the large reduction in greenhouse gas emissions that is essential if we are to stabilize our civilization and avoid changing the human adventure on this planet adversely and probably irremediably.
The numbers are rough, not precise, but deforestation and agriculture together produce approximately 20% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions on this planet. And there is a lot more concealed in gross figures for transportation and waste-handling. So what we need is a path forward that a) can meet the supply requirements of a global population of about 9-10 billion people; b) contributes significantly to reducing GHG emissions; and c) provides the basis for a healthy food-regime for all those who choose to adopt it.
Following is a chart prepared by California Environmental Associates for the Climate and Land Use Alliance, a consortium of foundations working in the area of deforestation and agriculture, that lays out broadly the opportunities in the agricultural sector for reduction of greenhouse gas emission.
We have entered a global food squeeze. A leading cause of the food squeeze is that agricultural productivity has not increased as fast this decade as it did during the second half of the 20th century. In other words, a growing population starting to consume more than we’re producing.
The global population has been growing at roughly 2 percent a year, but that trend understates the increase in demand for food. Standards of living in emerging markets such as China are rising, leading to increased consumption of items further up the food chain, such as meat. And those richer foodstuffs require more calories and energy (fertilizer) to produce than the basic grain diets on which the world’s poor have traditionally relied.
Starting with the Green Revolution in the 1960s, there was a fairly steady increase in food yield per acre of 2 percent or more per year. But there has been no new round of breakthrough technology that increases crop yield since then, and new factors are coming into play, such as more severe weather disruption (due in part to global warming); increased land degradation and loss of irrigation water; and shrinking available arable land to expand agriculture. As global warming accelerates, the consequences will severely reduce our agricultural production because of droughts, storms, flooding, glacier melting and temperature increases in key growing zones, such as the American Midwest.
There is one huge opportunity that would help reverse these trends. “From farm to fork”, as the experts say, how much food do you think is wasted, lost, thrown away, spoiled or otherwise not used? The answer: a staggering 30 percent globally, and more in the U.S.
In the United States, nearly 40 million tons of food a year ends up in landfills alone, according to the Food Waste Reduction Alliance, an industry group that has started to wrestle with this problem.
Most demographers predict that the world’s population will stabilize somewhere between 9 billion and 10 billion in roughly two decades. One of the very few courses that will allow us to feed this many people is to reduce food waste.
This is an enormous potential problem for the food industry. If you make money by producing, distributing or selling food, then the more you produce, process or sell, the more you earn. This is true whether you’re a farmer, Barilla, Cargill, or the Campbell Soup Co. If overall demand goes up, to the degree you can get waste out of your production chain, the more you will sell and the more you will make.
But if one of the places we eliminate waste is that part of the food chain that stretches from the point of sale, such as the supermarket, to your dining room table, that means families will be using and buying less food – and that is not a happy prospect if you’re in the food business.
If gains in agricultural productivity continue to decelerate, and if the pressure on crops placed by global warming increases – and both trends appear firmly established – we will have no other choice than to go after food waste.
The Europeans are ahead of the Americans on this issue. There are organizations and websites in Europe that alert people to the problem of food waste. And some supermarkets in Germany and the United Kingdom sell what’s called “ugly food” – food that has passed its best sell-by date but is still safe to eat. This trend is just beginning to take hold in the U.S. If you don’t want to pay top price for food and you’d like to reduce food waste, then “ugly food” is for you.
Another critical area in the new food equation is where food production and deforestation intersect. What is the biggest force that produces deforestation in the tropical forests? It’s the drive for more food production – soy and cattle in the Amazon, for example, and palm oil plantations in Indonesia, for another. The loss of these forests leads to clear increases in greenhouse gas emissions, and threatens in some cases to alter weather and rain patterns, usually for the worse. It’s important to note that one of the most constructive and important positive accomplishments in reducing greenhouse gas emissions anywhere in the world is Brazil’s achievement in cutting by 80% the rate of deforestation in its portion of the Amazon over the past few years. The battle to safeguard those gains is underway.
One of the key answers to this dilemma is to set up clear incentives, effectively enforced, against unchecked deforestation, as Brazil has done. And the other is to ramp up and encourage the reduction in food waste, so that existing food production sources can meet the needs of more of the 9 billion people that will need to be fed in the decades ahead. The estimates of 30-40% waste in food from farm to fork indicate that this is the most important area of future food “supply” to focus on. Governments around the world, and particularly in Europe and the U.S., are deeply involved in food policy and financial subsidies, so those governments will be a part of this struggle and its potential solution from the very beginning. The predictable cries from the extreme right wing on both continents saying “keep government out of it” will have no meaning or relevance in the case of food production and financial incentives.
Stay tuned – the challenge of feeding the planet without frying it will be a two-decade long obstacle course, and the struggle has just begun.