News

10.08.2018 |

Domino-effect could push Earth towards a ‘hothouse’ climate

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A hothouse climate would have serious consequences for farming (Photo: CC0)

Even if greenhouse gas emissions are reduced, there is a risk that global warming could trigger other processes which could push the Earth System irreversibly towards a “hothouse” climate, an international team of scientists has warned. The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that even if the targets of the Paris Agreement are met, this may not be enough to “park” the climate system at 1.5°C to 2°C above preindustrial levels. “A 2 °C warming could activate important tipping elements, raising the temperature further to activate other tipping elements in a domino-like cascade that could take the Earth System to even higher temperatures,” the authors write. This hothouse climate would in the long run see global average temperatures of 4-5°C higher than in pre-industrial times and sea levels rising 10 to 60 metres as compared to today. The scientists around lead author Will Steffen from the Australian National University and Johan Rockström from the Stockholm Resilience therefore call for an accelerated transition towards an emission-free world economy.

The authors analysed ten natural feedback processes, some of which are “tipping elements” that lead to abrupt change if a critical threshold is crossed. These feedbacks could turn from being a “friend” that stores carbon to a “foe” that emits it uncontrollably in a warmer world. The feedbacks include permafrost thaw, loss of methane hydrates from the ocean floor, weakening land and ocean carbon sinks, increasing bacterial respiration in the oceans, Amazon rainforest dieback, boreal forest dieback, reduction of northern hemisphere snow cover, loss of Arctic summer sea ice, and reduction of Antarctic sea ice and polar ice sheets. “These tipping elements can potentially act like a row of dominoes,” said Johan Rockström. “Once one is pushed over, it pushes Earth towards another. It may be very difficult or impossible to stop the whole row of dominoes from tumbling over. Places on Earth will become uninhabitable if “Hothouse Earth” becomes the reality,” he adds.

“The impacts of a Hothouse Earth pathway on human societies would likely be massive, sometimes abrupt, and undoubtedly disruptive,” the authors warn. It would also have serious consequences for food and farming. “Agricultural systems are particularly vulnerable, because they are spatially organized around the relatively stable Holocene patterns of terrestrial primary productivity, which depend on a well-established and predictable spatial distribution of temperature and precipitation in relation to the location of fertile soils as well as on a particular atmospheric CO2 concentration,” the authors write in the journal. “Current understanding suggests that, while a Stabilized Earth pathway could result in an approximate balance between increases and decreases in regional production as human systems adapt, a Hothouse Earth trajectory will likely exceed the limits of adaptation and result in a substantial overall decrease in agricultural production, increased prices, and even more disparity between wealthy and poor countries.”

“Avoiding this scenario requires a redirection of human actions from exploitation to stewardship of the Earth system,” said lead author Will Steffen. Maximising the chances of avoiding a “Hothouse Earth” requires not only a reduction of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions but also the enhancement and creation of new biological carbon stores, for example, through improved forest, agricultural and soil management; biodiversity conservation; and technologies that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it underground, the paper says. The authors also stress that these measures must be underpinned by fundamental societal changes that are needed to keep global warming below 2°C. (ab)

31.07.2018 |

Humanity has already exhausted Earth’s natural resources for 2018

Earth
Humanity has already used up nature’s budget for the entire year (Photo: CC0)

August 1 marks Earth Overshoot Day this year – the day humanity has used up the resources nature can regenerate in a year, according to data from Global Footprint Network, an international research organisation. And the speed at which we consume these natural resources is increasing – August 1 is the earliest date ever recorded since the world first went into overshoot in the 1970s. To maintain this level of resource consumption, we would need the equivalent of 1.7 Earths. Earth Overshoot Day is calculated each year by contrasting the world’s demand on nature (ecological footprint), including demand for food, timber, fibres (cotton) and accommodation of infrastructure, with the planet’s ability to replenish resources and absorb waste, including carbon dioxide emissions. The date has moved up on the calendar from late September in 1997, showing that humanity is exhausting nature’s resource budget faster than ever. For the rest of the year, we will be living on resources borrowed from future generations.

The costs of this ecological overspending include deforestation, collapsing fisheries, fresh-water scarcity, soil erosion, biodiversity loss and the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, leading to climate change and more severe droughts, wildfires, and hurricanes. These threats can force many people to migrate to cities or other countries. “As we mark Earth Overshoot Day, today may seem no different from yesterday – you still have the same food in your refrigerator,” said Mathis Wackernagel, CEO of Global Footprint Network. “But fires are raging in the Western United States. On the other side of the world, residents in Cape Town have had to slash water consumption in half since 2015. These are consequences of busting the ecological budget of our one and only planet.” According to the think tank, the estimated level of resources and ecosystem services required to support human activities today is 1.7 Earths. If everyone lived the way US citizens do, it would take 5 Earths to sustain global consumption. If the entire world followed Australia’s example, it would take 4.1 Earths. South Korea and Russia are using 3.5 and 3.3 Earths respectively, followed by Germany which is using nature 3 times faster than ecosystems can regenerate. India only needs the equivalent of 0.7 planets.

But the Global Footprint Network is also confident that the current trends can be reversed. They have identified four solution areas with the most potential to address ecological overshoot: cities, energy, food and population. If we reduced driving by 50% around the world and replaced one-third of car miles with public transportation and the rest by walking and biking, we could move Earth Overshoot Day back 12 days. Reducing the carbon component of humanity’s Ecological Footprint by 50% would get us from consuming the resources of 1.7 Earths down to 1.2 Earths. This corresponds to moving the date by 93 days, or about three months. Another important area is food: If everyone in the world cut food waste in half, reduced the footprint intensity of their diets by switching from industrial animal-based to local, vegetable-based diets and consumed world-average calories, the date could be moved back 38 days. “The past does not necessarily determine our future. Our current choices do. Through wise, forward-looking decisions, we can turn around natural resource consumption trends while improving the quality of life for all people,” Global Footprint Network says on its website. (ab)

26.07.2018 |

We can feed 9.7 billion by growing crops for humans, not animals

Maize
Feed maize to people instead of animals, study says (Photos: CC0)

The current crop production is sufficient to feed the predicted 9.7 billion world population in 2050, but only if we make radical changes to our dietary choices, new research shows. The scientists from Lancaster University stress the need for fundamental changes to human diets, replacing most meat and dairy with plant-based alternatives, and a greater willingness to eat crops such as maize which are currently fed to animals. For the study, published in the journal “Elementa, Science of the Anthropocene”, the researchers combined data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) with food nutrient data, and information on animal grazing and human nutritional needs. In the abstract of the study, they write that “the current production of crops is sufficient to provide enough food for the projected global population of 9.7 billion in 2050, although very significant changes to the socio-economic conditions of many (ensuring access to the global food supply) and radical changes to the dietary choices of most (replacing most meat and dairy with plant-based alternatives, and greater acceptance of human-edible crops currently fed to animals, especially maize, as directly-consumed human food) would be required.”

The scientists looked at calories and calculated what the effect would be if society in 2050 did not reduce waste and maintained per capita non-food uses at current levels while increasing meat, dairy and fish consumption in line with FAO projections to 730 kilocalories per person a day. “If society continues on a ‘business-as-usual’ dietary trajectory, a 119% increase in edible crops grown will be required by 2050”, said Professor Nick Hewitt, of the Lancaster Environment Centre. The researchers admit that meat and dairy, particularly if produced from grass, pasture and stover, may be of dietary importance to people who do not have access to diverse food types. However, they conclude that “Overall, industrialised meat and dairy production, which currently relies on feeding 34% of human-edible crop calories to animals globally, is highly inefficient in terms of the provision of human nutrition, since it reduces the energy, protein, iron and zinc supplies potentially available to humans from crops, and is incompatible with a sustainable global food system as currently conceived.” Professor Hewitt said their analysis “finds no nutritional case for feeding human-edible crops to animals, which reduces calorie and protein supplies.”

With regard to food waste, the study shows that reducing waste and excess consumption is also important, but quantitatively less significant. “The case for reducing food wastage, at all stages of the supply chain, and for reducing excess consumption above that required for healthy living, is self-evident. However, we show that, in the absence of increases in yield, both are quantitatively less important than reducing the amount of human-edible crops fed to animals,” the authors write. The analysis also shows that there is little scope for biofuel production. “Currently, 16% of crops available for eating are diverted to non-food uses, mainly biofuel. Increasing market pressures for biofuels could further stress the global food system,” said Professor Mike Berners-Lee, of Lancaster University’s Institute for Social Futures. He added that “there is currently widespread emphasis on increasing crop yields and reducing waste as the main mechanisms for ensuring global food security.” However, he stressed that the potential nutritional benefits of increased crop yields would be entirely lost if the additional crop production was diverted to biofuels and largely lost to feeding animals.

The authors highlight that the global food system has major impacts on the environment, through greenhouse gas emissions, water abstraction, soil, water and air pollution, land use change and loss of biodiversity, threatening food security and sustainability. “The challenge of sustainably producing sufficient food for the growing global population will not be solved by increases in production because there is a limit to the potential for efficiency gains, and many of these come with greater environmental costs, while increasing agricultural area by land use change almost invariably leads to losses of biodiversity,” they write. “Achieving global food security while reducing negative environmental impacts is one of the greatest challenges facing humanity,” said Professor Berners-Lee. But we can achieve this if we make radical changes to our dietary choices. (ab)

19.07.2018 |

Big meat and dairy companies are heating up the planet, report

Cow
The meat and dairy industry is heating up the planet (Photo: CC0)

The world’s largest meat and dairy companies could surpass the fossil fuel industry and become the biggest climate polluters within the next few decades, new research shows. The report, published by the non-profit organisations Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) and GRAIN, examines the 35 leading companies and found that most are not reporting their greenhouse gas emissions data and few have set targets that could reduce their overall climate footprint. Instead they are pursuing growth strategies that would actually increase their emissions, undermining international efforts to tackle climate change. The research shows that the five largest meat and dairy corporations combined (JBS, Tyson, Cargill, Dairy Farmers of America and Fonterra) are already responsible for annual greenhouse gas emissions of an estimated 578.3 Mt – more than major oil companies such as ExxonMobil (577 Mt), Shell (508 Mt) or BP (448 Mt). The combined emissions of the top 20 meat and dairy companies (933 Mt) even surpass the emissions from entire nations, such as Germany (902 Mt), Canada (722 Mt), Australia (533 Mt) or the UK (507 Mt).

According to GRAIN and IATP, most of the top 35 meat and dairy companies either fail to report emissions entirely, or exclude their supply chain emissions, which account for 80-90% of total emissions. Only four companies – NH Foods (Japan), Nestlé (Switzerland), FrieslandCampina (the Netherlands) and Danone (France) – provide complete, credible emissions estimates. The authors of the study complain that less than half of the top 35 meat and dairy giants have announced any type of emissions reduction targets. Out of these, only six include supply chain emissions. And even despite public commitments, most companies are driving overconsumption by ramping up production and exports. Tyson, for example, expects annual growth of 3–4% from beef and poultry sales, while Marfrig targeted 7.5–9.5% annual growth for 2015-2018. “There’s no other choice. Meat and dairy production in the countries where the top 35 companies dominate must be significantly reduced,” said Devlin Kuyek of GRAIN. “These corporations are pushing for trade agreements that will increase exports and emissions, and they are undermining real climate solutions like agroecology that benefit farmers, workers and consumers.”

If the growth of the global meat and dairy industry continues as projected, the livestock sector as a whole could consume 80% of the planet’s annual greenhouse gas budget by 2050. GRAIN and IATP decry that meat and dairy giants receive indirect subsidies because the public is paying the bill for the air, water and land pollution they cause, as well as the public health impacts from antibiotics overuse and biodiversity loss. “There is no such thing as ‘cheap meat,” said Shefali Sharma of IATP. “It’s time we realized over-consumption is directly linked to the subsidies we provide the industry to continue deforesting, depleting our natural resources and creating a major public health hazard. This report shows what a key role they play in creating climate change as well.” The organisations recommend that taxpayer funds should instead be channelled toward creating an agroecological transition of our food system in which farmers can supply everyone with moderate amounts of high-quality meat and dairy in a way that respects people, animals and the planet. “To do so, we must break the power of the big meat and dairy conglomerates and hold them to account for their supersized climate footprint,” the report concludes. (ab)

16.07.2018 |

Cost of food imports a growing burden for poorest countries

Food
Food imports are becoming more burdensome for the poorest countries (Photo: CC0)

Food imports are placing an increasing burden on the world’s poorest countries, according to a new report released by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) on July 10th. The “Food Outlook” finds that food imports assume a large and growing share of foreign exchange earnings for many Low-Income Food Deficit Countries. The world food import bill has roughly tripled since 2000, reaching $1.43 trillion in 2017. However for those countries which are the most vulnerable to food shortages the figure has increased fivefold. The report looks at trends and the composition (animal proteins, fruits and vegetables, cereals, beverages, oilseeds and coffee, tea and spices) of food import bills since the turn of the millennium. The authors write that food imports have risen at an annual global average rate of 8% since 2000, but the rates have been in the double-digits for the vast majority of the poorest countries. The world’s least-developed countries (LDCs) now spend 28% of all merchandise export earnings on food imports, nearly double the share of 2005. Developed countries, which also have a larger GDP per capita, only spend an average of 10% of their export earnings on food imports.

The Food Outlook also found that the share of cereals compared to higher-value foods in the import basket has not declined in poorer countries, while it has declined considerably in wealthier ones. The authors point to the problem that poorer countries may be paying more and more for less food. “Due to the fact that virtually all international transactions are priced in US dollars, importing can also be encumbered by adverse movements in domestic currencies vis-a-vis the US dollar,” the report reads. “A further negative development is that exchange rates of numerous countries have in general been falling in real terms against the US dollar, bringing about diminishing purchasing power, and again, at a higher intensity than in developed countries. This shows a trend that has “been deteriorating over time, portending an increasing challenge, especially for the poorest countries, to meet their basic food needs from international markets,” said Adam Prakash, a FAO economist and author of the study. (ab)

04.07.2018 |

Global food prices to remain low over the next decade, OECD-FAO report

Cereal
Food prices will remain stable (Photo: CC0)

Global food prices are expected to remain low for the coming decade as the rate of population growth is forecast to decline and per capita consumption of many commodities will level off. Poorer countries with rising populations and scarce natural resources will become increasingly dependent on imports for basic foodstuffs to feed their populations. These are the key messages of the OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2018-2027, which provides ten-year projections for all major agricultural commodities, as well as for biofuels and fish. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), a decade after the food price spikes of 2007-8, conditions on world agricultural markets are very different today. “Production has grown strongly across commodities, and in 2017 reached record levels for most cereals, types of meat, dairy products, and fish, while cereal stock levels climbed to all-time highs,” the executive summary says. However, demand has started to grow slower than in the past. The authors attribute this to weakening demand in major emerging economies, stagnating per capita consumption of staple foods and slowing demand growth for meat products. Another reason is that the rate of global population growth will decline gradually. With strong supplies, ample stocks and lower demand growth, commodity prices are expected to decline in the years to come.

The Outlook finds that global agricultural and fish production is projected to grow by around 20% over the coming decade, but with considerable variation across regions. Strong growth is expected in developing regions with rapidly growing populations. In developed countries, especially in Western Europe, production increases will be much lower. With slower consumption and production growth, agricultural and fish trade are projected to grow at about half the rate of the previous decade. FAO and OECD expect that net exports will increase from land-abundant countries and regions, notably the Americas. Countries with high population growth, in particular in the Middle East and North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa and in Asia, will see rising net imports. “Many poorer countries with rising populations and limited land resources will be increasingly dependent on food imports to feed their people,” said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría.

With regard to meat products, the outlook projects that demand will grow at a slower rate than before. “Some low-income regions which currently have low per capita consumption levels of meat, such as Sub-Saharan Africa, are not expected to increase these levels significantly due to a lack of sufficient income growth,” the report finds. “Some emerging economies, in particular China, have already transitioned to relatively high levels of per capita meat consumption. In India, where income growth is stronger, dietary preferences translate rising incomes into an increased per capita demand for dairy as preferred animal protein, rather than meat.” Demand for cereals and vegetable oil for the production of biofuels is expected to grow much more modestly than in the last decade, when biofuels expansion led to more than 120 million tonnes of additional cereal demand, predominantly maize. With existing policies in developed countries unlikely to support biofuels expansion, most demand growth will come from emerging countries which have introduced blending mandates.

The report also addresses health concerns since the per capita intake of sugar and vegetable oil is expected to increase in the developing world. Urbanisation is leading to higher demand for processed and convenience foods. “Changes in levels of food consumption and the composition of diets imply that the “triple burden” of undernourishment, over-nourishment and malnutrition will persist in developing countries,” the report warns. It also recommends that countries re-orient policies towards sustainable farming systems: “The Green Revolution of the last century largely increased the world’s capacity to feed itself but now we need a sustainability revolution,” said FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva. “This includes tackling high-input and resource-intensive farming systems that impose a high cost to the environment. Soil, forests, water, air quality and biodiversity continue to degrade. We need to adopt sustainable and productive food systems that offer healthy and nutritious food, while also preserving the environment and biodiversity.” (ab)

27.06.2018 |

Land area half the size of the EU is degraded every year, report

Soil
Soil degradation has increased (Photo: CC0)

Population growth and changes in consumption patterns put unprecedented pressure on the planet’s natural resources. Land degradation has become a serious problem: Globally, a total area half of the size of the European Union is degraded annually, with Africa and Asia being the most affected regions. This is the sad message of the latest edition of the World Atlas of Desertification, published by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) on 21 June. The Atlas was created using new data processing methods employed by EU scientists, thousands of high-performance computers and 1.8 petabytes of satellite data. “Over the past twenty years, since the publication of the last edition of the World Atlas of Desertification, pressures on land and soil have increased dramatically,” warns Tibor Navracsics, EU Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport. “To preserve our planet for future generations, we urgently need to change the way we treat these precious resources.”

The Atlas is intended as a tool for decision makers to better understand land degradation, its causes and potential remedies to tackle desertification and restore degraded land. It provides many examples of how human activity drives species to extinction, threatens food security, intensifies climate change and leads to people being displaced from their homes. The report contains a large collection of facts, forecasts and global datasets about land degradation: According to the Atlas, over 75% of the Earth’s land area is already degraded, and over 90% could become degraded by 2050. Land degradation and climate change are estimated to lead to a reduction of global crop yields by about 10% by 2050. Most of this will occur in India, China and sub-Saharan Africa, where land degradation could even halve crop production. It is projected that by 2050, up to 700 million people will have been displaced due to issues linked to scarce land resources. This figure could reach 10 billion by the end of this century.

The report also presents solutions to the problem of land degradation. The authors stress that further agricultural expansion, one of the main causes of land degradation, could be limited by increasing yields on existing farmland, shifting to plant-based diets, consuming animal proteins from sustainable sources and reducing food loss and waste. The Atlas presents many examples of successful sustainable land management practices around the globe and their environmental, ecological and societal benefits. One of them is the widespread implementation of small-scale water-harvesting systems that make better use of precious rainfall in drylands. Micro-basins, as those near Mount Kenya presented in the report, are an effective way of maximizing rainwater retention. In order to avoid the loss of soil moisture through evaporation, the soil is covered. Leaving crop residues and weeds (applied as a mulch) between crop rotations is a good practice to keep permanent soil cover and reduce moisture loss. Another good land management practice cited in the report is the large-scale terracing of land in the Loess plateau of China which has improved land productivity and the livelihoods of millions of land users. This measure not only helped to increase food production for a growing population, it also reduced catastrophic floods and the sedimentation of large dams.

“Maintaining or improving the productive capacity of land requires a move towards land degradation neutrality. This is a matter of preserving or enhancing the ability of land resources to support ecosystem functions and services,” concludes the report. “Sustainable management of soil, water and biodiversity can help close yield gaps, increase the resilience of land and thus support the people who depend on it for their livelihoods. This will come at a cost, but the cost of action or prevention is always lower than the cost of inaction,” the authors stress. (ab)

18.06.2018 |

Consumers can contribute to halt land degradation, UNCCD says

Deserst
A third of the planet’s land is already severely degraded (Photo: CC0)

Land degradation is undermining the well-being of 3.2 billion people worldwide but we can all contribute to avoid this threat by supporting sustainable land management. This is the message of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) on the occasion of this year’s World Day to Combat Desertification celebrated on June 17. “Everything we produce and consume has a land footprint. A bicycle requires 3.4 square meters of land. Ten square meters of land are used to produce a laptop. Producing one kilogram of beef takes 22 square meters,” said Monique Barbut, UNCCD Executive Secretary. She stressed that few people think about this land footprint “because the losses are not visible – or at least not accounted for – in the products we consume.”

People are often using land as if it were a limitless resource, the UN agency said. This negligence threatens food and water supply, biodiversity and even human security itself. Short-sighted economic gains such as land grabbing, unplanned urban sprawl, unsustainable agriculture and over-consumption lead to unsustainable land use, which eventually causes degradation and loss of critical ecosystem services. As a result, consumption of the Earth’s natural reserves has doubled in the last 30 years and a third of the planet’s land is already severely degraded. This is causing serious problems for the 1.3 billion people, mostly in developing countries, who depend on this degrading land for their livelihoods – jobs, incomes, food, water, energy, and medicines.

But the UNCCD highlighted that changes in behaviour and the adoption of more efficient planning and practices can guarantee that sufficient land resources are available long-term to meet our ambitions for and to provide sustainable livelihoods. “Every one of us has a role to play,” said Barbut in her message for the day. “Farmers can invest in smart agriculture that leads to higher yields despite a reduction in inputs like pesticides. Consumers can spend their money on organic and fairly traded products to avoid land degradation. There are many more ways to invest in land wisely,” she stressed. “Imagine, what would happen if the world’s over 7 billion consumers committed, every year, to just one lifestyle change that will support the provision of goods from sustainably managed land.” She called on consumers worldwide to make choices that reward land users whose practices protect the land from degradation. “When you choose what to eat, what to wear or what to drive, think about how your choice impacts the land – for better or for worse.”

Land degradation also plays an important role in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 15 on Life on Land calls for a resolve to halt and reverse land degradation, with a target to combat desertification, restore degraded land and soil, including land affected by desertification, drought and floods, and strive to achieve a land degradation-neutral world by 2030. The UNCCD stressed that our small decisions every day can transform the world. “In 2030, when the international community evaluates its achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, you can point to positive changes that you have contributed in favor of present and future generations.” (ab)

05.06.2018 |

Eating less meat and dairy best way to reduce your impact on Earth, study

Cow
Lowest-impact meat still has a higher footprint than vegetable proteins (Photo: CC0)

Giving up meat and dairy products is the single most effective way to reduce your environmental impact, new research has revealed. According to a comprehensive analysis published in the journal Science, livestock only provides 18% of calories and 37% of our protein while taking up 83% of farmland worldwide. The scientists at Oxford University and Swiss agricultural research institute Agroscope found that switching to a vegan diet could reduce a person’s carbon footprint by as much as 73%. If everyone went vegan, we would require 3.1 billion hectares less farmland. The focus of the study was to assess the environmental impact for 40 different agricultural goods around the world in a meta-analysis comparing various types of food production systems. The researchers created a database on the environmental impacts of 38,700 farms as well as 1,600 processors, packaging types, and retailers. In order to assess the different environmental impacts, they looked at five environmental indicators: land use, climate change emissions, freshwater withdrawals and water pollution (eutrophication), and air pollution (acidification).

The scientists found large differences for one and the same product. “Impact can vary 50-fold among producers of the same product, creating substantial mitigation opportunities,” says the abstract. For example, one pint of beer can create 3 times more emissions and use 4 times more land than another. High-impact beef producers create 105kg of CO2 equivalents and use 370 square metres of land per 100 grams of protein, causing 12 times more emissions and using 50 times more land than low-impact beef producers, with dairy herds grazing rich natural pasture. High variation within and between protein-rich products is also manifest in acidification, eutrophication, and water use. “Two things that look the same in the shops can have extremely different impacts on the planet. We currently don’t know this when we make choices about what to eat. Further, this variability isn’t fully reflected in strategies and policy aimed at reducing the impacts of farmers,” said lead author Joseph Poore.

The study also showed that animal product free diets delivered the greatest environmental benefits. The impacts of even the lowest-impact animal products still exceeded those of vegetable substitutes, providing new evidence for the importance of dietary change. For example, tenth-percentile greenhouse gas emissions of dairy beef were 36 times higher with 9.1 kg CO2eq per 100 grams of protein than those of peas with 0.25 kg CO2eq, including all processing, packaging, and transport. In addition, the lowest impact beef used six times more land (7.3m²) than peas (1.2m²). A low-impact litre of cow’s milk uses almost two times as much land and creates almost double the emissions as an average litre of soymilk. “Moving from current diets to a diet that excludes animal products has transformative potential, reducing food’s land use by 3.1 billion hectares (a 76% reduction), including a 19% reduction in arable land,” the authors write. “This would take pressure off the world’s tropical forests and release land back to nature,” said Joseph Poore. The researchers also found that plant-based diets would reduce food’s emissions by 6.6 billion metric tons of CO2eq (a 49% reduction); acidification by 50%, eutrophication by 49% and freshwater withdrawals by 19%.

But reducing the environmental footprint of food production would also be possible without everyone having to go vegan. The researchers showed that reducing the consumption of animal products by 50% by avoiding the highest-impact producers could achieve 73% of the greenhouse gas emission cuts a switch to plant-based diet’s would result in. Further, lowering consumption of discretionary products (oils, alcohol, sugar, and stimulants) by 20% by avoiding high-impact producers would reduce the emissions caused by these products by 43%. “Agriculture is characterised by millions of diverse producers. This diversity creates the variation in environmental impact,” said Poore. However, this heterogeneity creates opportunities to target the small numbers of producers that have the most impact. “We need to find ways to slightly change the conditions so it’s better for producers and consumers to act in favour of the environment,” says Joseph Poore. “Environmental labels and financial incentives would support more sustainable consumption, while creating a positive loop: Farmers would need to monitor their impacts, encouraging better decision making; and communicate their impacts to suppliers, encouraging better sourcing.” (ab)

31.05.2018 |

The EU needs a new food and farming blueprint, study

Food
The EU needs a new food and farming blueprint (Photo: CC0)

The European Union has no consistent, coherent or complete food policy, new research shows. The lack of an comprehensive framework for food policy means that the current food and farming policies are failing to adequately protect public health and the environment, as well as making the farming sector sustainable. This is the conclusion of a study that was carried out by the University of Pisa and published on May 24. The researchers assessed different food-related EU policies to better understand whether they jointly contribute to a sustainable food future. Among those policy instruments or tools were the so-called Greening payments in the framework of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the Nitrates Directive, seed marketing directives, public food procurement, competition policy or the labelling of food and drinks. The study, commissioned by Friends of the Earth Europe, European Public Health Alliance, IFOAM EU and Slow Food, found many policy weaknesses and concluded that the existing instruments are not conceived in a systemic and integrated way to contribute to the sustainability of the whole system.

“We assessed 10 different EU policies to judge how they contributed to a sustainable food and farming system,” said Professor Gianluca Brunori at the University of Pisa. “Available evidence shows that there are many inconsistencies, incoherencies or gaps. One of the problems is policy failure, meaning that some of the EU’s policies fail in achieving their main objectives. For example, the greening of the CAP has failed to deliver the planned environmental benefits. “The general impact of Greening measures is relatively low, especially due to the many exemptions and derogations to the rules arising as a compromise for the political acceptance of the reform and to the large flexibility given to the Member States to implement the reform,” the authors write. Another problem is inconsistency because many EU policies conflict with the goals of other policies. For example in the case of the seed marketing directives, economic and social objectives are priorities with the aim of establishing a market for regulated seeds that guarantee productivity and safety of food crops. However, this comes at the expense of reducing genetic diversity, which in turn adversely affects ecological, ethical and resilience goals.

The study also mentions examples of policy incoherence. Although some EU policies have the potential to contribute to a sustainable food system, their implementation remains insufficiently coordinated with other policies. The researchers found that there is little connection between EU laws to protect water from nitrate pollution and the CAP cross-compliance rules. Policy gaps are also an issue: Sometimes policy instruments are missing, or existing instruments fail to integrate other sustainability dimensions. Professor Brunori says that all these deficiencies “should be addressed through an overarching policy framework, able to balance a mix of demand and supply side policy instruments, as well as food environment-oriented ones.” The researchers hope that their study will contribute to building a more ethical and resilient food system in the EU.

The report comes ahead of the expected publication of the European Commissions’ new plans for the future of the CAP this Friday. The organisations that commissioned the research are calling for the CAP to be reformed in a way to help transition towards a sustainable food and farming system within a new policy framework. “The current approach to food and farming is a hodgepodge of incoherent and competing policies that damage public health, the environment and the welfare of the farming community,” said Stanka Becheva from Friends of the Earth Europe. “The reform of the CAP must be used to step back from the vested agribusiness interests instead as an opportunity to start building an agroecological food system that is fit for the future.” (ab)

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