Food and climate change: the forgotten link

Food and climate change: the forgotten link

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The global agri-food system is one of the major causes of global warming. If steps are taken to restructure agriculture and the global food system around food sovereignty, smallholder agriculture, agroecology and local markets, we could cut global greenhouse gas emissions in half in a few decades.

Food is a key driver of climate change. The industrial process between which food is produced until it is served at our table causes about half of the greenhouse gas emissions generated by humans. Chemical fertilizers, heavy machinery, and other petroleum-dependent agricultural technologies contribute significantly. The impact of the food industry as a whole is even greater: forests and savannas are destroyed to produce animal fodder and climate-damaging waste is generated by excess packaging, processing, refrigeration and transport of food over long distances, despite that millions of people are still hungry.

A new food system could be a key driver of solutions to climate change. People all over the world take part in struggles to defend or create new ways to grow or share food that is much healthier for their communities and for the planet. We don't need carbon markets or technological patches. We require sound policies and programs that eradicate the current industrial food system creating instead one that is sustainable, equitable, and truly productive.

Food and weather: how to put the puzzle together.

Most studies place the contribution of agricultural emissions - emissions from farmland - somewhere between 11 and 15% of global emissions (1). However, what is not commonly said is that most of these emissions are generated by industrial farming practices that rely on chemical fertilizers (with nitrogen), heavy machinery that runs on gasoline, and in industrial operations of highly concentrated animal husbandry that pump methane waste into the atmosphere.

Nor is it often that agriculture contribution figures take into account changes in land use and deforestation, which are responsible for a fifth of greenhouse gas emissions (2).

At the global level, agriculture invades savannas, wetlands, closed areas and forests, destroying the soil of enormous areas by plowing. The expansion of the agricultural frontier is the dominant contributor to deforestation, accounting for between 70 and 90% of global deforestation (3). This means that some 15-18% of global greenhouse gas emissions are produced by changes in land use and deforestation caused by agriculture. But here again, the global food system and its model of industrial agriculture are the main culprits. The main promoter of this deforestation is the expansion of industrial plantations for the production of goods such as soybeans, sugar cane, oil palm, industrial corn, and rapeseed or canola, as well as pulp tree plantations. Since 1990, the area planted with the first five commodities grew by 38% (4), despite the fact that the land planted with staple foods such as rice or wheat decreased.

Emissions from agriculture account for only a portion of the overall contribution of the food system to climate change. Equally important is what happens between the moment food leaves the farms and the moment it reaches our table.

Food is the largest economic sector in the world, and by far it involves more transactions and employs more people than any other sector. In our times, food is prepared and distributed using huge amounts of processing, packaging and transportation, all of which generate greenhouse gas emissions, although data on such emissions are difficult to find. Studies that investigate the European Union conclude that about a quarter of total transportation has to do with commercial food transportation (5). Scattered figures on transportation, available in other countries, such as Kenya and Zimbabwe, indicate that the percentage is even higher in “non-industrialized” countries, where “food production and delivery account for between 60 and 80% of the total. the total energy used —including human, animal and fuel "(6). If transport accounts for 25% of global greenhouse gas emissions, we can use EU data to conservatively calculate that food transport accounts for at least 6% of global GHG emissions .

Regarding processing and packaging, again the available data come mainly from the European Union, where studies show that food processing and packaging account for between 10 and 11% of GHG emissions (7), while Food refrigeration is responsible for 3-4% (8) of total emissions, and food retail is responsible for another 2% (9). Being conservative with the EU figures and extrapolating from the few figures that exist for other countries, we can calculate that at least 5-6% of emissions are due to food transport, 8-10% are due to food processing. Food and food packaging, about 1-2% is due to refrigeration and 1-2% to retail. This gives us a total contribution of between 15 and 20% of global GHG emissions from all these activities.

Not everything that the food system produces is consumed. The industrial agri-food system discards about half of all the food it produces, on its way from farms to merchants, to food processors, to stores and supermarkets. This is enough to feed the hungry of the world six times (10). Much of this waste rots away in landfills and landfills, producing significant amounts of greenhouse gases. Different studies indicate that between 3.5 and 4.5% of global GHG emissions come from waste, and more than 90% of them come from matter originating in agriculture and processing (11). This means that the decomposition of organic waste originated in food and agriculture is responsible for 3-4% of global GHG emissions.

Add up the figures cited above, clear up the evidence, and here's a compelling case: today's global agri-food system, powered by a powerful transnational food industry, is responsible for about half of all human-produced greenhouse gas emissions. : a figure between a minimum of 44% and a maximum of 57%. The graph below illustrates this conclusion.

How to turn the food system around.

It is clear that we will not emerge from the climate crisis if we do not dramatically and urgently transform the global food system. And the place where we can start is the ground.

Food begins and ends on the floor. They emerge from the soil and eventually return to it to allow more food to be produced. This is the true cycle of life. But in recent years humans have ignored this life cycle. We have been taking him to the ground without giving him back.

The industrialization of agriculture that began in Europe and North America, later replicated by the Green Revolution in other parts of the world, was based on the assumption that soil fertility could be maintained and increased through the use of chemical fertilizers. Little attention was paid to the importance of organic matter in the soil.

A wide range of scientific reports indicate that cultivated soils have lost between 30 and 75% of their organic matter during the 20th century, while soils that support grasslands and prairies have typically lost up to 50%. These losses have undoubtedly caused a serious deterioration in the fertility and productivity of the soils, and have contributed to worsening droughts and floods.

If we take as a basis the more conservative figures provided by the scientific literature, the accumulated global loss of soil organic matter during the last century can be estimated at between 150 billion and 200 billion tons (12). Not all of this organic matter ended up in the air as CO2, since significant amounts have been washed away by erosion to be deposited on the bottom of rivers and oceans. However, it can be estimated that at least 200-300 billion tons of CO2 have been released into the atmosphere due to the global destruction of soil organic matter. In other words, between 25 and 40% of the current excess CO2 in the atmosphere comes from the destruction of soils and their organic matter.

There is good news hidden in these devastating numbers. CO2 that was released into the atmosphere by abusing and wearing down the world's soils can be put back into the soil. What is required is a change in agricultural practices. We must move away from practices that destroy organic matter and move closer to practices that accumulate organic matter in the soil.

We know this can be done. Farmers around the world have embraced these practices for generations. GRAIN research has shown that if the right policies were put in place, the right incentives, globally, soil organic matter contents could be restored to pre-industrial agriculture levels in about 50 years. years, which is roughly the same time it took for industrial agriculture to deplete them (13). The continued use of these practices would allow the elimination of 24 to 30% of current global GHG emissions per year. (14)

The new scenario would require a radical change of approach, away from the current model of industrial agriculture. Emphasis should be placed on the use of techniques such as crop diversification systems, better integration between crop production and animal production, greater incorporation of trees and wild vegetation, and more. Such an increase in diversity could, then, increase potential production, and the incorporation of organic matter would progressively improve soil fertility, creating virtuous circles of higher productivity and greater availability of organic matter. The soil's ability to hold water would increase, which means that excessive rainfall would lead to less and less intense floods and droughts. Soil erosion would be less and less of a problem. The acidity and alkalinity of the soil would be reduced, easing or eliminating the toxicity that has become a major problem in arid and tropical soils. Furthermore, a higher biological activity of the soil would protect the plants against pests and diseases. Each of these effects implies higher productivity and as such more organic matter available in the soils, which would make it possible, as the years go by, higher objectives regarding the incorporation of organic matter into the soil. In the process, more food would be produced.

To achieve this, it is necessary to build on the accumulated skills and experience of the world's small-scale peasants, rather than undermining their lives, grabbing their lands and driving them out of their territories, as is now done.

A global shift towards agriculture that accumulates organic matter in the soil would also put us on the path of cutting off some of the main sources of GHG that come from the food system.

There are three other mutually reinforcing shifts that need to occur in the food system so that we can address its current global contribution to climate change: the first is a shift towards local markets, towards shorter circuits in food distribution , which would allow us to reduce transportation and the need for packaging, processing and refrigeration. The second shift is a reintegration of cultivation and animal production, which would reduce transportation, the use of chemical fertilizers and the production of methane and nitrous oxide emissions generated by large industrial meat and dairy farms. The third is to curb land clearing and deforestation, which would require genuine agrarian reform and reverse the expansion of monoculture plantations for the production of biofuels and fodder.

If the world took these four shifts seriously and put them into action, it would be possible to cut global GHG emissions in half in a few decades and, in the process, go the long way toward solving the other crises that affect the planet. , like poverty and hunger. There is no technical obstacle that prevents us from doing so —in the hands of the world's peasantry are the necessary knowledge, experience and skills, and from there we can start. The only obstacles are political and that is where we must focus our efforts.

GRAIN | 01 November 2011 | Biodiversity -

To deepen:

  • Seedling, Special Issue on Food and Climate Change, October 2009.…
  • Biodiversity, livelihoods and cultures 62, October 2009…
  • Peasant agriculture can cool the land. A GRAIN powerpoint presentation.…
  • Climate crisis, special compendium of Biodiversity, livelihoods and cultures, April, 2010…
  • The food and climate connection, a Whyhunger video.…


(1) The IPCC says 10-12%, the OECD says 14% and the WRI says 14.9%. See: IPCC, Climate Change 2007: Mitigation of Climate Change. Chapter 8: Agriculture, - Wilfrid Legg and Hsin Huang. OECD Trade and Agriculture Directorate, Climate change and agriculture,

(2) See WRI, World GHG Emissions Flow Chart, and IPCC, 2004. Climate Change 2001: Working Group I: 3.4.2 Consequences of Land use Change.

(3) See FAO Advisory Committee on Paper and Wood Products - Session 49 - Bakubung, South Africa, June 10, 2008; and M. Kanninen et al., “Do trees grow on Money? Forest Perspective 4, CIFOR, Jakarta, 2007.

(4) GRAIN, “Global Agribusiness: two decades of plunder”, Seedling, July, 2010.

(5) Eurostat. From farm to fork - a statistical journey along the EU’s food chain - Issue number 27/2011 and

(6) FAO. Stephen Karekezi and Michael Lazarus, Future energy requirements for Africa’s agriculture. Chapters 2, 3 and 4.

(7) For the EU, see Viktoria Bolla, Velina Pendolovska, Driving forces behind EU-27 greenhouse gas emissions over the decade 1999-2008. Statistics in focus 10/2011.

(8) Tara Garnett and Tim Jackson, Food Climate Research Network, Center for Environmental Strategy, University of Surrey “Frost Bitten: an exploration of refrigeration dependence in the UK food chain and its implications for climate policy”, http: // tinyurl. com / 3h2rqln

(9) S.A. Tassou, Y. Ge, A. Hadawey, D. Marriott. "Energy consumption and conservation in food retailing". Applied Thermal Engineering 31 (2011) 147-156 and Kumar Venkat. CleanMetrics Corp. The Climate Change Impact of US Food Waste, CleanMetrics Technical Brief. and Ioannis Bakas, Copenhagen Resource Institute (CRI). Food and Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emissions.

(10) Tristram Stuart, Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal, Penguin, 2009,

(11) Jean Bogner, et. to the. Mitigation of global greenhouse gas emissions from waste: conclusions and strategies from the IPCC. Fourth Assessment Report. Working Group III (Mitigation)

(12) The figures used for the calculation were: a) an average loss of 4.5-6 kg of soil organic matter per square meter of arable land (SOM / m2) and 2-3 kg of SOM / m2 of low agricultural land grasslands and uncultivated; b) an average soil depth of 30 cm, with an average soil density of 1 gr./cm3; c) 5 billion hectares of agricultural land worldwide; 1.8 billion arable land according to data published by FAO; d) a ratio of 1.46 kg of CO2 for each kilo of SOM destroyed.

(13) See GRAIN, “Caring for the soil”, Biodiversity, sustenance and cultures, number 62, October 2009,

(14) The conclusion is based on the assumption that the incorporation of organic matter would reach a global average annual rate of between 3.5 and 5 tonnes per hectare of agricultural land. For more detailed calculations see GRAIN, “Caring for the soil”, op.cit., Table 2.

Video: Food waste is the worlds dumbest problem (May 2022).


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