I recently returned home from Paris, where I participated in a number of events around the climate-change conference that used food to tell the story of climate change and highlight potential solutions. The city had the crazed but celebratory feeling of a wedding, with plenty of planning boiling down to a final, frantic push to cross the finish line. But just as marriage is only the beginning of a new kind of life, it turns out the finish line is actually the starting line—and the real work begins now.
Unfortunately, there’s no time for a honeymoon. Each nation has to figure out how it is going to fulfill its commitments, most of which focus heavily on energy—a natural choice because it’s the top contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.
But a quick look at the relationship between food and climate makes clear that we are largely overlooking the sector that holds the greatest potential to solve the problem of climate change.
There are three big reasons our plates are so important. The first is that smart food policy can have the biggest return on investment. The production of food emits 25% to 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions—it’s the second leading source. And unlike the energy sector, where rates have begun to decline, emissions in agriculture are projected to increase by 30% by 2050. The mitigation potential here is huge.
When thinking about an issue as big as agriculture, it can be daunting to decide where to start. There are two clear paths we should take: reduce the amount of food that goes to waste, and reduce the emissions from food with climate-smart agriculture.
Let’s start with food waste. Globally, we waste a third of the food we produce (in the U.S., we waste 40%). That means that nearly a third of the land we farm grows food that ends up in a dumpster instead of someone’s stomach. This waste accounts for 8% of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization. If waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter.
We will need specific policies and innovations to increase efficiency and help people manage their food more efficiently. Congresswoman Chellie Pingree of Maine recently proposed a smart and pragmatic bill that would go a long way towards achieving many of these goals in the U.S.
Beyond eliminating waste, expanding climate-smart agricultural practices is the way forward. Climate-smart agriculture is defined as practices that sustainably increase productivity and system resilience, while reducing and sequestering greenhouse gas emissions. We should do what it takes to help farmers incorporate these cost- and climate-saving measures. The World Bank has already committed to align all of its loans and investments towards outcomes of climate smart agriculture. The United States should do the same.
The second untapped power of the plate is that food happens to be a language everyone speaks. Using food, leaders can make the issue of climate change real, and bring urgency to a problem that has seemed, for some, quite distant. The concept of gases which none can see, a few degrees which doesn’t sounds catastrophic, glacial melts thousands of miles away have not resonated with the general public. People feel an appropriate sense of alarm when they learn that things like chocolate and coffee, wine and champagne, peanuts, shellfish and crustaceans may all be out of reach for our grandchildren because of climate change. After making a meal with these very same products for leaders last week in Paris, I can say for certain it struck a chord.
The third reason food should be our focus is because it allows everyone an opportunity to be part of the solution. Farmers don’t grow food in a vacuum; they grow food for people to eat. We will not have climate-smart agriculture if we do not have climate-smart consumption. We—as eaters—can help push farmers to transition what and how they grow.
While policy is of the utmost importance, laws won’t solve this existential problem on their own. A dramatic cultural shift is needed if we are to fully reach our goals, and the dinner table is the place start. Consumers will need to make changes to their diets. For example, livestock alone produces 18% of greenhouse gas emissions. I’m a lover of steak, but we must eat less meat, and the meat we do consume should be part of a system that sequesters carbon. Because food is one of the deepest expressions of our culture, it holds tremendous power to move our values forward.
The environmental movement needs to prioritize food far beyond what it has to-date, and do it in a way which embraces the farmer as vital partner. The food world has the opportunity to establish itself on the most important platform of our times, and in doing so become a true political force.
Until the food we eat is grown, harvested and consumed with a healthier planet in mind, we will not reach the goals outlined in Paris. Just like marriage, success must be built on commitment over the long term, continual investment and work as well as a sense of optimism.
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