World needs a food revolution, not just reform
With nature’s capacity to support human life having reached a breaking point, changing what we put on our plates has become an urgent priority
This year, the United Nations is convening a special gathering to “raise awareness and elevate public discussion” about how food-system reform can help us to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. But the world needs much more than a food-systems summit. It needs a food revolution. With nature’s capacity to support human life having already reached a breaking point, changing what we put on our plates has become an urgent priority — one that will play a crucial role in determining the future living conditions on planet Earth.
Across G20 countries, the majority (60 per cent) of people know that we must make a rapid transition to renewable energies this decade. Not only are the necessary technologies increasingly available and affordable; pressure from both civil society and the financial sector is growing. Yet only 41 per cent of people recognise that we also need to transform our food systems in this decisive decade. This glaring gap in awareness shows that we need a wake-up call.
For decades, land-based ecosystems have been absorbing around 30 per cent of excess carbon-dioxide emissions, protecting us from the worst climate shocks. But over the last 50 years, we have obliterated at least half of these natural assets. When forests, for example, are destroyed for industrial food production, they do not just stop absorbing CO2; they start emitting it. Assets that were contributing to the planet’s resilience suddenly become liabilities that are undermining it. This double-whammy is why food production now accounts for over one-third of global emissions.
We are tantalisingly close to being on track for a fossil-fuel-free future. But that achievement will mean little to future generations if we do not also transform our broken food system. Just as we are pushing fossil fuels into retirement (while thanking them for all they have done for us), so too must we phase out industrial agriculture.
Industrial agriculture was designed for the noble purpose of feeding a growing population. But it is no longer fit for that purpose. In addition to its massive contribution to global warming — which will cause more crop failures, driving up hunger — the current system results in massive levels of food waste, the monopolisation of seeds (which leaves smallholder farmers at the mercy of multinational corporations), the degradation of once-fertile soils, poisoned waterways, and catastrophic biodiversity loss. All this amounts to an injustice that we can no longer tolerate. Ultimately, if we fail nature, we fail on climate, and we fail ourselves.
Many people recognise that we are approaching dangerous climatic tipping points, and most — 82 per cent across G20 countries — want change that protects nature. So, let’s show them what that would look like. This year’s Food Systems Summit is an opportunity to build momentum in some of the biggest priority areas of food-system reform. For example, we urgently need to make regenerative farming the dominant model globally. This form of agriculture relies on farming and grazing practices that nurture the soil, rather than killing it.
Furthermore, to continue to meet the nutritional demands of the world’s population, we also need to expand where food is grown. Agriculture can be practised in every space available, from rooftops, balconies, and converted car parks to fields and home gardens. And, finally, we need to ensure that people understand that what we eat can contribute directly to our own well-being, as well as that of the planet.
The good news is that we’re not starting from scratch. The EAT-Lancet Commission has already scientifically defined a diet that would nurture both people and the planet. This diet, which is readily available to people around the world, features a drastic reduction in meat consumption and a commensurate increase in plant-based proteins.
Plant-based proteins are to the food sector what renewables are to the energy sector. Safe, tasty, and increasingly affordable and accessible, these proteins will soon proliferate widely, in part because investors already see their market potential. By 2040, children will be horrified to learn that we used to mass-produce and slaughter animals in factory farms, just as they will be incredulous that we used to drive around in cars that spewed toxic fumes into the air.
Another piece of good news is that we are quickly strengthening our understanding of the relationship between soil health and food production. We already know how to improve crop rotations, and we are expanding the use of water-harvesting systems and conservation-based agriculture. This allows us to move away from ploughing that irritates the soil and releases carbon emissions.
Moreover, the Land Institute is developing new forms of perennial — rather than annual — staple food crops. Instead of having to sow their seeds every year, farmers will be able to harvest the same plant for four, five, or six years in a row. And because these perennial crops have root systems that run deeper than those of annual crops, they are more resilient and absorb more carbon in the soil. They also require much less diesel in the tractor.
We know that we can move quickly as a global community when we need to. The pandemic has taught us that rapid change is possible. Now, we must bring the same urgency (and even more follow-through) to fixing our relationship with food and how we produce it. Our food system is our most essential life-support mechanism. But we won’t be able to transform it in time if only a minority of us are even aware of the challenge.
This year’s summit is an opportunity to raise awareness. But it should be understood as only one step along the way. We can each take an additional step with every meal we share. Changing what we eat is a radical act that will make us and nature healthier and happier. By making nature-conscious eating choices and helping to spread the word, each of us can contribute to keeping planetary warming within the 1.5° Celsius limit laid out in the Paris agreement. A healthier plate makes for a safer planet. — Project Syndicate
Christiana Figueres, a founding partner of Global Optimism, is a co-author of the bestselling book The Future We Choose: The Stubborn Optimist’s Guide to the Climate Crisis, and a co-presenter of the Outrage + Optimism podcast. She was executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change from 2010-16, overseeing the landmark Paris agreement on climate change, adopted by 190 countries and the European Union.
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