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What is the future of food? Six ways we can reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from what we eat

Food accounts for one-third of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. But there’s reason for hope.
Food accounts for one-third of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. But there’s reason for hope. Copyright Canva
Copyright Canva
By Nichola Daunton
Published on Updated
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Food accounts for one-third of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. Here's how we can pave the way to a greener future.

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Picture the causes of climate change and you might imagine cars, private jets and oil extraction. What you might not think of is the food on your plate.

According to UN estimates though, one third of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) come from the global food system.

Food production uses 70 per cent of the world’s freshwater too, yet the World Food Programme estimates that nearly a third of the food we grow is lost or wasted each year.

These figures are particularly worrying when the Global Report on Food Crises 2023 notes that 258 million people faced high levels of food insecurity in 2022.

While these issues may seem insurmountable, there are still reasons to be hopeful about food’s future.

Food is gaining more attention at climate change forums

Last year’s COP27 climate conference brought us the first food systems pavilion. And though the agreed four-year plan on agriculture and food security was watered down, the climate conference saw food move up the agenda for the first time.

How to overhaul food systems was also a leading topic at Compassion in World Farming’s Extinction or Regeneration Conference earlier this year. The conference brought together scientists, activists and policymakers to discuss how food systems can change in response to the climate emergency.

“There's growing awareness of the benefits of regenerative and agroecological farming and of the need to question the amount of meat and dairy that we're producing - and the way that it's being brought to us,” Philip Lymbery, CEO of Compassion in World Farming tells Euronews Green.

“So I do think that the stage is being set for the big change that is needed to save the future for our children, for animals, people and the planet.”

With so much currently at stake, here are our top six reasons to be hopeful about the future of food.

6. We’re already growing enough food to feed the world (but we’re wasting a lot of it)

According to the World Food Programme, if we used all the food that is currently wasted, we’d have enough to feed an extra two billion people globally. This means that we are already producing enough food to feed the predicted 2050 global population of 9.8 billion.

But reducing waste is key to making this happen.

Europe, North America, China, Japan and Korea are responsible for 58 per cent of all the food wasted on farms, despite being home to just 37 per cent of the global population.

The WWF report ‘Driven to Waste: The Global Impact of Food Waste on Farms’ shows that market forces, including low prices, mean that sometimes it’s not even economically viable for farmers to harvest the crops they have grown.

In the EU, an estimated 173 kg of food is wasted per person, per year, with food waste accounting for 6 per cent of total EU emissions. In fact, according to the Feedback report, ‘No time to waste’ the EU actually wastes more food than it imports.

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Earlier this month though, the EU proposed a commitment to reducing food waste in shops, restaurants and households by 30 per cent per capita by the end of 2030, with a target of 10 per cent within food processing and manufacture.

5. Regenerative farming is rolling out across the world

Organic farming in the EU has been increasing year-on-year, and in 2020 the total area of farmland under organic production in the bloc grew to 14.9 million hectares.

Regenerative farming in particular - that’s farming that focuses on regenerating agricultural land by following natural cycles and restoring soils - is having its moment in the sun too. The UK even has its own regenerative farming festival, Groundswell, which teaches farmers how to practically apply regenerative methods to their land.

This is essential work, as soil degradation is a huge problem globally. The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) warns that over 90 per cent of the world’s topsoil will be at risk by 2050 if we don’t act.

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“We have to turbo-boost soil fertility,” explains Philip. “How do we do that? By restoring nature’s fertility routine. By bringing animals back onto the land as part of mixed rotational farms, where through their droppings and their actions, and through the rotation of vegetation and animals, soil fertility is restored.”

This approach to farming is starting to influence big brands too, with companies like McCain committing to growing all of its potatoes on regenerative farms by 2030, while vegetarian meat alternative Quorn has set up its own regenerative farm in Yorkshire, UK.

4. The One Health movement is bringing human and animal health together

While regenerative farming is a must, understanding how human, animal and planetary health are linked is also important if we want to create a more resilient system.

With members including the World Health Organization (WHO), FAO and the United Nations Environment Programme, the One Health movement acknowledges that human, environmental and animal health are all intertwined.

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Currently, 60 per cent of emerging diseases come from wild and domestic animals, so the movement is placing emphasis on animal welfare as a way of reducing the risk of future pandemics and food insecurity, as Melissa Leach explains.

“We’ve been working with the Royal College and partners in Asia on the One Health poultry hub, which has been exploring ways to create transitions to less risky forms of poultry production.

“For instance we’ve been working in Bangladesh where there are some really good innovations to support small scale farmers with credit and information so they don’t have to take the cheapest route, the high productivity route, and can actually afford to raise and sell their poultry in safer ways.”

By bringing human, animal and planetary health together, the movement aims to shift food systems away from damaging practices and create a more equitable system in the process.

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3. Cultured meat might help reduce factory farming (but not yet)

While the One Health movement is trying to reduce the negative impacts of the meat industry, some food experts are focusing on getting rid of factory farming altogether.

“For planet friendly reasons we need to reduce our meat and dairy consumption, particularly in the global north,” explains Philip.

“And cultured meat, stem cells grown in bioreactors is something that I believe could be a big part of the solution. Given the right level of investment and with research and development in scaling up, I do think that cultivating meat holds out the promise of being the renewable energy equivalent of food.”

In June, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) gave two companies - Upside Foods and Good Meat - the green light to begin selling their cultivated chicken in the US. While it won’t hit supermarket shelves for a while yet, it might soon be available in restaurants.

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Although energy costs mean that cultivated meat is still very expensive to produce, further research and investment may drive down costs in the long term.

However long it takes, Philip believes the wait will be worth it.

“People are eating meat from animals that have lived and died in their own excrement in the dark and in abject misery, before being killed in the most horrendous way that no one would ever want to know about.

“So as soon as cultivated meat becomes mainstream, why would you want to do that?”

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2. Attitudes to animal sentience are changing

The recent campaign against the opening of the world’s first octopus farm in the Canary Islands shows that attitudes to animal sentience are shifting too. Thanks in part to nature documentaries like Netflix’s ‘My Octopus Teacher’ and the entire works of David Attenborough, more and more people recognise that animals experience pain, suffering and joy.

Animal sentience is enshrined in EU law too, with all member states obliged to consider animal sentience when formulating policies. This coincides with a predicted drop in meat consumption, with the EU Commission predicting that EU meat consumption per capita will drop from 69.8kg in 2018 to 67kg in 2031.

This drop is not big enough though. According to Greenpeace, EU consumption must drop by 71 per cent by 2030 and by 81 per cent by 2050 in order to reduce the effects of food production on emissions.

This means everyone in the EU should be eating no more than 300g of meat per week by 2050 - that’s the equivalent of two hamburgers per week. The EU average is currently a whopping 1.58kg.

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1. Activists are energising the fight for food justice

Inequality is baked into the global food system. From industrial trawlers destroying the livelihoods of small fisheries, to vital ecosystems being stripped bare to grow soy for factory farms, big agriculture is harming the planet.

Despite the challenges though, activist and campaign groups are making big wins. Greenpeace played a vital role in shaping the UN Ocean Treaty - which aims to protect at least 30 per cent of the Ocean by 2030. Feedback, based in the UK and Netherlands, continues to challenge supermarket food waste and reveal the impact of big livestock.

Pressure from Compassion in World Farming meant animal sentience was finally enshrined in UK law last year too, with the enactment of the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act.

And it’s not just big groups that are challenging the food system. Grassroots organisations like Granville Community Kitchen are helping to empower communities and fight for food justice on a local scale, while the EU funded Edible Cities Network promotes small-scale urban food growing around the world.

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