Image: COP26 UNFCCC Team, Kiara Worth

From global politics to actionable next steps

Browsing through the Sustainable Development Goals knowledge hub, one can scroll over lists of pledges and commitments made by international governments during the recent COP26 Climate Change Conference held in Glasgow. Financial contributions, commitments to renewable energies and net zero targets all feature large. But we must look hard to find any mention of food and agriculture… 

The Global Methane Pledge certainly recognises agriculture as a major contributor of greenhouse gas emissions. Yet according to the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, the solution being offered is to actually increase productivity, while deploying technical solutions to reduce environmental impact. Instead of opening up the discussion to seek the real changes we must urgently make to our food system, the entire topic is glaringly absent. Politicians simply avoided the climate threats that high meat and dairy consumption within the developed world pose. Regrettably, such high-profile international talks are still not addressing one of the single most impactful causes of climate change. A quarter to a third of our global emissions are attributable to the food system.

Although just  0.1 percent of all talk time in Glasgow was devoted to food and agriculture, there was one food-focused gathering hosted by HSI, Brighter Green and other interested food groups. Everyone attending this was reminded  that 83% of global farmland is currently allocated to either livestock, or producing crops for animal feed. Used in this way, the land provides just 37% of the protein we consume and only 18% of our carbohydrates. Yet along the way, thousands of acres of forest are slashed and burned to make way for ever more industrial-scale meat production. Ultimately, we slaughter around 80 billion land animals annually for human consumption and producing all this meat is a major source of greenhouse gases including methane – which is 10x more heat intensive than CO2 during its first 10 years in the atmosphere.

 

Image: iatp.org

Meat consumption is already three times what it was 50 years ago and the average person in the developed world currently consumes a mighty 78kg of meat per year. This compares to just 1kg per year consumed by people living in the developing world. Moreover, the global population is set to rise from 7.9 billion today to over 9.5 billion by 2050, while rising consumer affluence across the world is giving billions of newly-rich consumers the means to purchase much more of the tasty meat they crave. All this means we are accelerating toward a climate, food security, biodiversity and equity crisis – an imminent catastrophe that politicians have known about for years.

So why is food and animal agriculture not higher on the climate agenda when it’s responsible for over a third of total greenhouse gas emissions and plays such a vital role in delivering against the UN Sustainable Development Goals? 

Feedback Executive Director, Carina Millstone refreshingly highlighted that reducing meat consumption throughout the global north and reducing meat production by some very big and powerful industrial food corporations, is a sensitive conversation that the political classes lack the courage to initiate. In a capitalist economy, intent on extracting from the earth for the purpose of perpetual growth, industrialised meat production further benefits from more than US$475 billion in financial backing. It will take a brave soul to apply the brakes!

How F&B can be a catalyst for more sustainable food

However, F&B can step up – and say and do the things that politicians are failing to address. Hotels, restaurants, private clubs and food outlets are a major influence on what food we are eating and buying during this critical time. They all bulk-buy produce from selected suppliers and their purchasing choices ultimately impact how their customers view food. At the COP, NGOs and food groups pressed politicians to support restaurants that are seeking to reduce their environmental impact. Practical measures include better labelling to enable suppliers to understand the embedded carbon footprint of their products and provide the transparency that allows buyers to make informed choices.

Meanwhile restaurants are under pressure as they strive to meet the expectations of more informed consumers. Demand for healthy and nutritious food that’s both planet friendly and ethically produced is growing. Younger generations are becoming especially climate and health conscious. And since most western consumers have the luxury of voting with their wallet or credit card, we can choose the food we buy and who we buy it from. Ultimately, our food purchasing choices can profoundly benefit the planet.

Growing consumer awareness of environmental issues was acknowledged in reports since COP21 in Paris. Back in 2015, the United Nations first announced its pledge to cap rising temperatures at 1.5% above pre-industrial levels – a target that leading scientists consider essential for human and planetary wellbeing. Now in 2021, it seems big food is still keeping the conversation off the international political agenda – yet at a time when consumers are increasingly calling for a more fair and equitable food system.

In the end, it may be the person on the street and the restaurants where we eat that make the most significant changes of all. We can continue benefiting from eating more plant-based foods. We can demand planet-friendly food choices when eating out and we can seek out suppliers who share our values. All in all, this is creating a growing army of people who are saying no to business as usual – a powerful consumer lobby that politicians ignore at their peril.