The Big Challenge: Food for thought on our climate
It is great to see the fossil fuel debate feature so prominently in recent issues of the Telegraph. Fuel and shelter are such basic human needs, but so are food and water. Many people understand that fossil fuels must go, but are unaware of the relationships between our food and climate change. Indeed, some researchers estimate that industrialised animal farming creates as much greenhouse gas as all of the world's transport combined.
Food production is linked to climate change in three ways. Firstly, it is a major cause of climate change. Rainforest is unnecessarily disappearing for food production. One fifth of the Amazonian rainforest has already gone and livestock rearing is a major cause of this. Approximately 30 per cent of the world’s land surface is given over to grazing livestock or growing animal food. This is an incredibly inefficient way of meeting human dietary needs, as well as a major cause of biodiversity reduction and species extinction.
Industrialised meat and dairy farming also leads to methane production. Methane is produced by ruminant animals (cows and sheep). Methane is the most powerful greenhouse gas producing 21 times more global warming than carbon dioxide. Long-distance transport use increases the carbon footprint of meat (as well as being cruel to animals).
The excessive use of water in industrial farming practices is also bad for the planet. It takes up to 15,000 litres of water to produce one kilogram of beef, while many global communities are short of water. Yes, of course we all have to eat, but there are other ways.
Secondly, food production is affected by the consequences of climate change. Climate change is already resulting in increased incidence of weather extremes resulting in unpredictable harvests. Two contrasting examples are long-term global wheat market fluctuations leading to price increases, and the recent European shortage of courgettes.
Other consequences include desertification, soil infertility and water shortages – for example, Zimbabwe has suffered increasingly severe droughts, but this rainy season in Southern Zimbabwe has caused flooding and washed topsoil away.
Elsewhere, rising sea levels are threatening vast areas of densely populated fertile land, such as river deltas.
These global factors combine to create food shortages which we are concerned will be the earliest, most severe symptom of climate change to directly affect us in the UK. Meanwhile, the number of climate change refugees will continue to rise.
Lastly, changing food production and consumption is a solution for climate change. There are very real concerns about feeding 10 billion people globally by 2050. However, as with the arguments in favour of extracting less accessible fossil fuels, this assumes ‘business as usual’ in the wealthier, highest-consuming nations.
Changing land use by changing current dietary trends can contribute greatly to both climate change mitigation and adaptation. The Zero Carbon Britain Project report describes a scenario where ‘a healthy diet is provided for the UK population on 29 per cent of the land currently used for food production, supplemented by low carbon imports.
This would lead to an 80 per cent decrease in greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and free up land for reforestation and taking carbon from the atmosphere.
This may sound optimistic, but there is little doubt that a more plant-based diet would help solve the climate crisis facing the planet, and would also lead to a healthier population. Obesity and type 2 diabetes are on the rise, especially in wealthier countries where people are eating too much processed food and too much meat and dairy.
Sheffield Climate Alliance Food Group campaigns to raise awareness of the complex issue of feeding a growing population on a planet with finite resources. We recommend that people think about where their diet comes from; buy seasonal, locally-produced food; purchase fewer processed meals; eat more plants, and aim for zero waste.
n Visit www.sheffieldclimatealliance.net for details.