Citizens’ food choices can be a major weapon in the fight against runaway climate change – but only if governments act

8th Oct 18 by Jessica Sinclair Taylor

Food waste prevention and plant-based diets provide huge emission-saving opportunity - if we take it.

The IPCC today delivered a chilling and much needed warning that the window for action to avoid catastrophic global warming is rapidly closing. The new report lands a few months before national delegates gather in Katowice, Poland, for the next round of UN negotiations on how to achieve the ambitions set out in 2015’s Paris Agreement. The report urged a stiffening of ambition from the current agreement for states to keep global temperature rises well below 2 degrees and to ‘pursue efforts’ to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. What does all this mean for our food system?

The IPCC climate experts agree that keeping the planet on a path to no more than 1.5 degrees of warming by the end of the century will require large-scale, land-related measures such as afforestation or peatland restoration – which may well compete with food production for a growing global population. (Women’s right to choose the size of their family, through ready access to contraception and free universal education for girls are two other critical, but much ignored pieces of the land-use puzzle).

In addition, the IPCC reports that the gains provided by the nascent global transition to renewable energy are being cancelled out by uncontrolled deforestation to make room for agriculture – much of it to grow animal feeds such as soy and corn, feeding the profits of the world’s intensive meat industry.

The food system is thus at the heart of both our climate and human development destiny. While change in how we use land and produce food, such as afforestation, and low-input farming methods like agro-forestry, will be essential, Feedback urges policy-makers not to forget the potential of changing demand as well, in particular food waste reduction and a shift to diets which are healthy for both people and planet. Reducing food waste alongside meat and dairy consumption would make a serious dent in deforestation, allowing the IPCC’s recommendation of large-scale afforestation to reabsorb atmospheric carbon dioxide, to proceed with minimal impact on food availability.

Halving food waste by 2030, in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 12.3, could make a major in-road into the agricultural emissions gap – the gulf that has opened up between nations’ stated emissions reduction plans and what is needed to achieve 1.5 degrees. Project Drawdown has calculated that halving food waste by 2050 (20 years later than the UN’s current ambition) could avoid emissions equal to 26.2 Gt of CO2 – a huge saving. Feedback has long argued that the common sense measure of feeding omnivorous farm animals such as pigs on currently shockingly high levels of industry food waste, is one way to mitigate the climate cost of the meat industry. Long term however, deeper action is needed.

The world’s five biggest industrial meat producers contribute more annual GHG emissions than ExxonMobil, Shell or BP and the livestock sector accounts for around 15% of global emissions. Meanwhile, in industrialised countries the average person eats twice as much meat as is healthy for them. As a recent Chatham House report has argued, it is frankly not enough for governments to deprioritise dietary change towards low-meat and dairy diets as ‘too difficult’ – large-scale behaviour change is possible if tackled head on, with an appropriate regulatory framework. And it will be necessary if we are to build a food system for the future that combines access to healthy food for all with the contributions needed to avoid high levels of global warming. This report should give us all pause for thought – and redouble our energies to make sure our food system nourishes our planet rather than deplete it.

What can you do next?