top of page

Food For Thought

The agricultural transition is neither easier, nor less urgent, than the energy transition

WHEN PONDERING the trouble with the climate crisis, people (and newspapers) usually visualise sprawling motorways clogged with traffic, or maybe towering smokestacks belching out polluting clouds. They very rarely think of green pastures filled with cows, or giant crop fields crisscrossed by chemical-sprying tractors. Yet, our food system – while still far from filling all of the world’s bellies – makes almost a third of human-made greenhouse-gas emissions.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), such a global system generates 21% of all the world's carbon dioxide (mostly from land use and deforestation), 53% of all methane (mostly from animal respiration and manure) and 78% of all nitrous oxide (mostly from fertilisers) emitted by the human civilisation. After computing the effects of greenhouse gases relative to carbon over a 100 years period, that makes 17 billion tonnes of CO2/e, or ‘equivalents.’ It is a remarkable 31% of all anthropogenic emissions.

Overlooking agriculture’s contribution to climate change  is rather common, though. At the yearly rite of the UN conferences on climate, better known as COPs, agriculture is much often out of the picture. Unlike the case of fossil fuels, there are not powerful lobbies and entire Petrostates battling to resist the transition to clean energy. Of course big business is also at play here, but with the overlapping, universal imperative called food security. Food security is at the same time a fundamental human right, and a basic requirement for the survival of democracies and tyrannies alike.

This is probably why, from 2000 to 2021, the global production of primary crop commodities increased by 54 percent to 9.5 billion tonnes, more than double the world’s population growth. And while a heck of a lot of food is being wasted, hunger is again on the rise with the help of wars and climate-induced droughts, floods and wildfires.

In theory, a more sustainable food system is possible. For instance the European Union, which devotes 55 billion euros a year (a third of its own budget) on subsidies to the agricultural sector, had put forward some ideas – gradually reduce pesticide and fertiliser usage, double organic food production and have some land rotating to fallow, in order to restore the soil’s health and promote biodiversity. However, farmers from around the Union – certainly afflicted by adverse climatic phenomena and by rising energy costs – didn’t appreciate the effort and expressed their sentiment in Bruxelles, shouting and throwing eggs. The EU promptly backtracked.

In practice though, the fastest way to a more sustainable food system would be cutting on meat consumption. Human beings use eight times more land for feeding animals than for feeding themselves, and this is, by the way, the primary driver for deforestation. Those very crops must be irrigated and roughly 7,000 litres of water are needed to produce one pound of beef. Ruminants generate methane as a byproduct of their digestion. Pig manure emits carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. The Economist has calculated that beef emits 31 times more CO2 per calories than tofu does. Now, try to imagine Joe Biden’s probability of being re-elected had it proposed his fellow citizens to cut on the five billion hamburgers they consume, on average, each year.

On the happier side, we can always rely on the magic of photosynthesis: plants grow ‘eating’ carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, so caring for our lands can make a difference. Big projects for planting millions of trees (up to one trillion, as per Donald Trump) have been touted, yet deforestation is sadly still largely ahead. But wait – a recent research has reversed previous beliefs. It turns out that, in warmer and drier climates, trees are struggling to absorb CO2.

If carbon concentrations grow, trees’ ability to sequester it, will decrease. If meat consumption cannot be ‘phased down’ (as fossil fuels are theoretically poised to) more deforestation will be inevitable. If pesticides and fertilisers usage is not restrained, biodiversity will suffer and emissions will grow further on. If we do not address emissions of all major greenhouse gases, not just carbon, our food system will never be truly sustainable.

The agricultural transition is neither easier, nor less urgent, than the energy transition.

Published on Geographical Magazine, March 2024 issue


bottom of page