October 17, 2016

Climate Is Changing – So Should Food and Agriculture

Becky Ramsing

Becky Ramsing

Senior Program Officer, Food Communities & Public Health Program

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

world-food-day-beansOn October 16, 1945, the United Nations created the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) with the goal of freeing humanity from hunger and malnutrition and effectively managing the global food system. World Food Day celebrates that event, and last September at the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit 193 countries together pledged to end hunger in the next 15 years.

The global goal for achieving Zero Hunger by 2030 is an ambitious goal that cannot be reached without addressing climate change. Climate change affects the poor disproportionately because the poor live at the margins, where very few alternatives or back-ups exist. For example, small-holder farmers subsist on what they earn that day or, at most, season. If their crop is ruined from an untimely hail storm, they have no back up or reserve. If food prices increase even slightly because of reduced supply, the poor must adjust their food purchases, which usually means either eating less or shifting toward staples in lieu of protein, vegetables, fruit and other varieties of health protective foods.

Agriculture is affected by climate change – and also contributes to it, by contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. Globally, raising animals for meat produces more greenhouse gases than the transportation sector, about 14.5 percent of total emissions. Livestock agriculture also uses over 30 percent of arable land globally (70% of agricultural land), and it is the biggest driver of land degradation, loss of biodiversity, and deforestation of important carbon-sequestering rainforests.

In other words, the way we currently grow, produce and eat our food is damaging the ecosystems we depend on for sustainably growing and producing healthy, diverse foods for the world.

World Food Day aims to end hunger, but it’s really about food security – the availability, access and utilization of food for all people, all the time. Food security is several concentric circles outside of the food itself – the soil food grows in, the effect on the community producing it, the impact on the environment, the ability to produce food continually over time. We actually may not need to grow that much more to reach the goal of ending hunger by 2030, but we need to address how and what is produced and distributed. And we must address how and what we eat. In other words, food security cannot be achieved without a sustainable diet.

In 2010, the FAO and Biodiversity International defined a sustainable diet as those diets with low environmental impacts that contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations.

There are many aspects to a sustainable diet. For example, some 800 million people on the planet suffer from hunger or malnutrition, yet an amount of cereal that could feed three times this number of people is fed to cattle, pigs and chickens.Animals convert plant protein and energy into meat protein and energy, but they are inefficient. In fact, it can take up to 12 kg of grain to produce 1 kg of beef.One study concluded that, “If current crop production used for animal feed and other nonfood uses (including biofuels) were targeted for direct consumption, some 70 percent more calories would become available, potentially providing enough calories to meet the basic needs of an additional 4 billion people.”

Additionally, as much as a third of the food produced globally is lost from the field and through lack of storage infrastructure, poor marketing or consumer wastefulness. If all the world’s food losses and waste were represented as a country, it would be the third highest greenhouse gas emitter, after China and the U.S.

While there is the scarcity of food in many places, overconsumption is also a driver. If every person ate the amount of food they needed to keep themselves at a healthy weight instead of the amount that leads to overweight and obesity, the amount of food production needed would be reduced, allowing for increased production for people who go hungry, as well as production of higher quality foods that meet nutritional needs.

There are many more issues including biodiversity and growing a variety of products for the health of the soil and resistance to pests, diseases and natural disasters. Yet, beyond these more global issues, there are important and effective actions we can take right here, right now Individual changes when gathered collectively can have a big impact toward sustainability.

  1. Eat less meat. Take one day a week to go without meat. Eat smaller portions when you do eat meat. Move meat from the center of the plate and focus on plant-based proteins instead – beans, tofu, seeds and nuts.
  2. Eat more foods that are good for the soil and not overly water-intensive. Good options include beans, pulses and root vegetables.
  3. Eat more variety – especially vegetables. Rather than relying on the top six vegetables that make up most of the vegetables we eat (potato, tomato, lettuce, onion, carrots and corn), rotate different vegetables throughout the week.
  4. Eat less overall. People who eat fewer calories also have healthier bodies and brains and live longer.
  5. Choose responsibly grown and raised foods. Look for labels like “Raised without antibiotics” (meat), “Certified humanely raised,” “Organic,” and “Free range.”
  6. Go to the source. Most of the time, eat foods that you prepare from their natural state. Avoid processed foods that used more water, transportation and are produced with added sugar, refined grains and unhealthy fats.
  7. Waste less food. Choose and use responsibly. Buy less, plan well, eat what you have.
  8. Let your fork guide your vote. Support policies and leaders that support sustainable agriculture and dietary guidelines.
  9. Purchase sustainable seafood using Monterey Bay Aquarium’s rating system for your local area. https://www.seafoodwatch.org/
  10. Enjoy good food. Be thankful for the variety and availability of food we have right here. Savor the flavors of fresh foods, herbs, spices and flavors knowing that making responsible choices is good for the planet and also good for you!

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