How the agro-industrial food system contributes to the climate crisis
Between 44% and 57% of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions come from the global food system
Before starting to plant, the trascavos dismount. All over the world, industrial agriculture is penetrating savannas, wetlands and forests
breaking up huge amounts of land. FAO says expanding the agricultural frontier is responsible for 70-90% of global deforestation, of which no less than half occurs from producing a handful of agricultural commodities for export. Industrial agriculture is responsible for between 15 and 18% of GHG emissions from the deforestation it promotes.
Agricultural processes: 11-15%
It is common to recognize that agricultural processes themselves contribute 11-15% of all GHGs produced globally. Most of these emissions result from the use of industrial inputs - chemical fertilizers and pesticides -; of gasoline to start tractors and irrigation machinery; and from the excess excrement generated by intensive animal husbandry.
In effect, the industrial food system acts as a global travel agency. The ingredients used in animal feed can be grown in Argentina to feed chickens that are exported from Chile to China to be processed and eventually consumed in a McDonald’s in the United States. Much of our food, produced under industrial conditions in distant places, travels thousands of miles before reaching our plate. We can calculate (conservatively) that food transportation is responsible for a quarter of transportation-related GHG emissions, that is 5-6% of total global GHG emissions.
Processing and packaging: 8-10%
Processing is an extremely profitable step in the industrial food chain. The transformation of food into ready-to-eat dishes, sandwiches, snacks and drinks requires a huge amount of energy, especially in the form of carbon. The same goes for the packaging and canning of these foods. Processing and packaging allow the food industry to pack supermarket and convenience store shelves with hundreds of different formats and brands, generating a huge amount of greenhouse gas emissions - 8-10% of emissions totals.
Refrigeration and Retail: 2-4%
Refrigeration is the pivot of modern global food procurement and distribution systems in supermarkets and junk food chains. Wherever the industrial food system goes, there goes the 'cold chain' too: [the controlled temperature supply chain]. If cooling is responsible for 15% of all energy consumption worldwide, and since chemical refrigerant leaks are an important source of GHG, we can say that food refrigeration accounts for 1-2% of all greenhouse gas emissions. The retail sale of such food accounts for another 1-2%.
The industrial food system discards nearly half of all the food it produces. He is throwing it away on the long journey from the farms to the intermediate warehouses, between them and the processors, until he reaches the retail trade and restaurants. Much of this waste rots away in garbage piles and landfills, producing substantial amounts of GHG. Between 3.5 and 4.5% of global GHG emissions come from waste, and more than 90% of this is produced by materials and substances originating in the food system.
Food sovereignty: 5 steps to cool the planet and feed its people
1. Take care of the soil. The food / climate equation has its roots in the earth. The expansion of unsustainable agricultural practices led throughout the
last century to destroy between 30 and 75% of organic matter in arable lands, and 50% of organic matter in grasslands and prairies. These massive losses of organic matter are responsible for between 25 and 40% of the current excess CO2 in the atmosphere. However, this CO2 in the atmosphere can be returned to the soil if we restore the practices that peasant communities maintained for many generations. If the correct policies and the appropriate incentives existed at the global level, the levels of organic matter that existed in the soil before the advent of industrial agriculture could be recovered (in about 50 years, which more or less corresponds to the time span of its destruction). This would offset 24-30% of all current GHG emissions.
2. Natural farming, NO chemicals. The use of chemicals in factory farms grows all the time, and soils become exhausted and pests and herbs become immune to insecticides and herbicides. However, the peasantry around the world maintains their knowledge and a diversity of crops and animals to work productively without using chemicals. They diversify their systems with polycultures, integrate agricultural and animal production, and incorporate trees and wild vegetation. These practices increase the productive potential of the land because they improve soil fertility and prevent erosion. Every year the organic matter accumulated in the soil increases, which makes it possible to produce more and more food.
3. Reduce mileage and focus on fresh food. The corporate logic that transports food around the world and back does not make any sense from any perspective. This global trade that goes from clearing vast corridors of land and forest to produce agricultural raw materials for export to the sale of frozen food in supermarkets, is the main responsible for GHG emissions from the food system. This system could reduce its GHG emissions if food production were reoriented towards local markets and fresh food away from cheap meat and processed food. Achieving this is perhaps the toughest fight of all, because corporations and governments are heavily involved in expanding the food and beverage trade.
4. Restore land to peasants and curb mega-farms. In the last fifty years, some 140 million hectares - something like almost all agricultural land in India - was taken over by four crops that mostly grow on huge plantations : soybeans, oil palm, canola and sugar cane. The global area where these crops (and others like corn for industrial purposes) are grown, which are all significant emitters of greenhouse gases, will grow if we don't change related policies. Today, peasants and small producers have squeezed into less than a quarter of all agricultural land, yet they continue to produce most of the world's food: 80% of the food in non-industrialized countries according to FAO. . Peasants produce these foods much more efficiently than large plantations, and in much better ways for the planet. Global redistribution of land for the benefit of smallholder farmers can cut GHG emissions in half, in a few decades, if combined with policies that help rebuild soil fertility, and with policies that encourage local trade .
5. No more false solutions, let's go to what does work. Food is increasingly recognized as central to climate change. Recent IPCC reports and international summits acknowledge that food and agriculture are major agents of GHG emissions and that climate change poses tremendous challenges to our ability to feed a growing global population. However, there is no political will to challenge the dominant model of industrial food production and distribution: governments and corporations continue to propose false solutions. The empty shell of climate-smart agriculture does nothing but rename the Green Revolution. There are new and risky technologies such as genetically modified crops to withstand drought or large-scale geoengineering projects. There are mandates to produce agrofuels, which drives land grabs in the South. There are carbon markets and REDD + projects, the essence of which is to allow the worst offenders and polluters with GHG to avoid reducing their emissions by turning the forests and agricultural lands of peasants and indigenous peoples into conservation parks and plantations. None of these “solutions” can work because they all work against the only effective solution: to make a shift — from the industrial agri-food system governed by corporations, to the local food systems that are in the hands of peasant communities.
Graphics: Raúl Fernández