We should demand and produce climate friendly foods
A reduction of the climate impact of foods will involve major challenges and difficult dilemmas. However, a transition in both foods and production is necessary and entails many positive side effects.
Experiences from the recent decade show that even minor climate changes may affect food supply and, not least, food prices. Increasing food prices will constitute a major problem for the poor populations of the world as well as entail substantial negative consequences for the global development of society. For instance, the extensive drought in 2010 resulted in poor harvests and increasing food prices in North Africa, which consequently caused a series of riots and armed rebellions; the so-called Arab Spring.
Continued climate changes will result in significantly larger fluctuations in the future global food supply; and cause deep concern as to the importance of climate changes to the living conditions in many countries and its consequences such as migration and global financial crises.
This was one of the messages expressed by Professor Tim Benton, University of Leeds, in his opening address at the conference “Foods in a changing Climate”, arranged by Aarhus University’s Interdisciplinary Centre for Climate Change (iCLIMATE) on Monday 18 March in Eigtveds Pakhus in Copenhagen.
Droughts and extreme weather conditions
According to Tim Benton and other climate researchers, climate changes will result in many of the world’s arid and warm areas becoming even warmer and more arid. Other areas will be exposed to extreme weather conditions that may reduce food production.
Tim Benton was the first in a series of researchers with expertise within climate, agriculture and foods, to illustrate the possibilities of limiting the climate impact of food production. The conference basis was that all of us – consumers, retail, food companies and agriculture – share a common responsibility for reducing the climate impact. The contributions provided a broad range of aspects as to what consumers, food companies and agriculture, respectively, can do to ensure this.
Changes in agricultural practice are needed
Calculations show that in Denmark agriculture and food production account for more than 20 percent of the Danish GHG emissions, and this percentage is increasing as other sectors now try to limit their emissions.
In a short-term perspective, we have a series of cultivation techniques and other technical possibilities to help reduce GHG emissions. These include e.g. the application of additives in feed and slurry, nitrification inhibitors in manure, perennial crops and not using cultivated peatlands.
However, there is a need for more fundamental changes, such as reducing the production of animal products. This production involves increased climate gas emissions and further requires larger production areas than vegetable production.
Therefore, the agricultural sector and the food companies should focus more on the production of vegetable products as well as bioenergy and biological materials, which may contribute to the phasing out of fossil fuels. Other technologies should also be considered; as an example, plant breeding may be applied to help crops reflect a larger share of the sun radiation in order to reduce global warming.
At the same time, agriculture should contribute to increasing soil carbon storage. This may be achieved by replacing annual crops like cereals, maize and rapeseed with perennial crops such as grasses. In Denmark, the major part of the agricultural land is used for the cultivation of cereals and annual crops for feed production. A more diversified crop composition will not only reduce climate impact, but – at the same time – increase biodiversity and reduce the agricultural environmental impact.
Demand is a prerequisite
According to the keynote speakers, it is a prerequisite – in order to change the agricultural system – that consumers demand climate-friendly, plant-based foods. An amount of uncertainty exists as to how we achieve this goal; however, there is no doubt that a reduced meat consumption will result in a healthier diet for many consumers. And if more of us eat healthier, then health service expenses may be significantly reduced.
Some calculations show that health costs in relation to our current Western world diets far surpass income in the agricultural sector. Therefore, significant economic synergies are available if we adopt a diet focusing on health, climate and environment.
There is no doubt or disagreement as to the superior goals. This was demonstrated at the panel discussion held in the afternoon. Representatives from think tanks, agricultural organizations, food companies and NGOs discussed the possibilities of reducing the climate impact of foods.
In recent weeks, companies and organizations have presented strategies to reduce climate impact; initially aiming at a 30-50 percent reduction before 2030, and in the longer term – in 2050 – the vision is to achieve climate neutrality.
Disagreement as to speed and initiatives
It remains uncertain which initiatives should be implemented in order to achieve the desired reductions, and how much the individual initiatives may contribute. Or, in other words, how may changes in demand, changes in land use or technological/biological changes contribute to reducing climate impact?
At the same time, financing this transition may be a challenge, as more keynote speakers pointed out. This calls for thinking outside the box/finding alternative solutions.
It was suggested that flight passengers and other large-scale consumers of fossil energy, either voluntarily or via fees, should pay to a fund who will finance the transition to a more climate-friendly food production, e.g. by financing the removal of peatlands.
Need for clarity
It is obvious that the road leading to a more climate-friendly agricultural sector will require a major transition within agriculture and food production. The first prerequisite is to achieve increased clarity as to the goals to be achieved, short-term as well as long-term, and to identify the efforts needed to meet these goals.
DCA and iCLIMATE will take the initiative to a continuous interdisciplinary dialogue with researchers, trade and industry and other interested parties on how to encourage this transition.
Professor Jørgen E. Olesen Department of Agroecology and iCLIMATE
Mobile: 4082 1659
Director Niels Halberg
DCA – Danish Centre for Food and Agriculture
Mobile: 2963 0093
Head of Department, Professor Carsten Suhr Jacobsen
Department of Environmental Science and iCLIMATE
Mobile: 2537 7667