Decarbonising food is essential to meeting our climate goals

Transforming food systems is a powerful way to reduce global dependency on fossil fuels

By Anna Lappé and Patty Fong

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AFP file
AFP file

Published: Mon 4 Dec 2023, 7:07 PM

Last updated: Mon 4 Dec 2023, 11:36 PM

When political leaders, policymakers, environmental advocates, and philanthropists gather for this year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference in Dubai (COP28), food systems will be high on the agenda for the first time. Given that the food sector accounts for one-third of all greenhouse-gas emissions, its inclusion is long overdue.

Fortunately, this challenge need not compete for our attention, because transforming food systems is also a powerful way to reduce our global dependency on fossil fuels. As our organisation shows in a new report, Power Shift: Why We Need to Wean Our Industrial Food Systems Off Fossil Fuels, food systems, from farm to plate to landfill, account for at least 15 per cent of annual global fossil-fuel use – equal to that of the European Union and Russia combined. And if the current approach to industrial food production continues, that figure is expected to increase significantly.

Today’s industrial food system is increasingly fossil fuel-intensive. Fossil fuels go into synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, as well as the plastics that are used in everything from the coatings for those pesticides and fertilisers to most food packaging. Moreover, most packaging is needed to store ultra-processed foods – from meat and dairy to sweets and sugary drinks – all of which require highly energy-intensive manufacturing and petrochemicals in the form of plastics.

Worryingly, the energy sector views the food system as a promising growth market. Food-related plastics and synthetic fertilisers account for approximately 40 per cent of all petrochemical products, and the International Energy Association predicts that petrochemicals will drive nearly half the growth in oil demand by 2050, outstripping sectors like aviation and shipping. Similarly, research from the Center for International Environmental Law has shown that fossil-fuel companies are banking on the expansion of these markets. The industry “is eyeing the food system”, CIEL’s Lisa Tostado told us, “from inputs like pesticides and fertilisers to production and processing, as a dangerous escape hatch”.

Finally, we’re also seeing a push to use more agricultural land for incredibly inefficient energy production. The United States already dedicates about 40 per cent of its corn harvest to ethanol fuels, which are estimated to be “at least 24 per cent more carbon-intensive than petrol.”

Given increased marketing of and demand for energy-intensive food, decoupling food production from fossil fuels is essential to meet our climate goals. Even if all governments delivered on their 2030 climate pledges, fossil-fuel use in the food system alone would consume our remaining 1.5° Celsius carbon budget by 2037.

Fortunately, there are many ways to phase out fossil fuels in food systems. These include strategies to end the use of fossil-fuel-based fertilisers and pesticides, and to move away from input-dependent crop-based energy systems like corn ethanol; shifting to renewable energy for processing, cooling, and drying food; supporting minimally processed, less energy-intensive foods and encouraging plant-rich diets; and encouraging the uptake of seasonal, locally grown food.

Shifting away from industrial methods toward more sustainable ways of farming not only would protect the planet. It also would create jobs, improve health, protect biodiversity, and help address the roots of hunger. Evidence from around the world shows that approaches like agroecology and regenerative agriculture are effective in driving a shift away from fossil-fuel dependency. With these strategies, yields remain steady or improve, while emissions fall, farmworkers’ health improves, and biodiversity is protected.

There is no technical barrier to shifting from dependence on synthetic inputs toward agroecological and regenerative food production, or to replacing fossil-fuel energy with renewable sources. But many governments offer very few subsidies to support these transitions, and many more incentivise business as usual. According to the OECD, every year between 2019 and 2021, public funds totalling $528 billion were channelled to agricultural and food-production practices that are generally bad for the climate, the environment, and human health.

Now that we have come to understand just how endemic fossil-fuel usage is across our economies, we must take pains to ensure that all sectors are included in the transition to a fossil-fuel-free future.We are pleased to see food finally taking centre stage at COP28. But that discussion must not be isolated from the one about ending the use of fossil fuels as fast as possible. There will be no food-systems transformation without phasing out fossil fuels, and there will be no phasing out fossil fuels without food-systems transformation. — Project Syndicate

Anna Lappé is executive director of the Global Alliance for the Future of Food. Patty Fong, programme director of Climate, Health, and Well-being at the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, is lead on the Power Shift report


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