COP-27 begins: We must change the way we eat to address the climate crisis

FABLE India on Indian Express states that four out of the five key focus areas at the upcoming COP-27 can be directly impacted by changing food habits and adoption of sustainable agricultural practices.

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This article was originally published on the Indian Express.

Written by Ranjan Kumar Ghosh

Global production, supply, and consumption of food contribute to nearly 31 per cent of human-induced global GHG emissions, making it the second largest contributor after energy. The major sources of emissions within food systems are synthetic fertiliser and manure use, crop residues, gaseous expulsions by livestock, diversion of forests and pasturelands, tropical forest and peat fires, and refrigeration and transport of food. This share is getting higher, making it more difficult to account for products like renewable bio-energy, which are sourced primarily from crops such as maize and sugarcane.

In India, intensive cultivation of popular crops such as paddy, wheat, and sugarcane deplete two of the most fundamental resources that sustain human existence — land and water. On the other hand, livestock rearing, mostly for meat and dairy, is especially hazardous as methane gas (CH4) emissions have 28 times more global warming potential than carbon dioxide (CO2). How can the need for feeding the human population be balanced with both human and environmental health?

Recently, a global policy assessment (of which this writer is a co-author) called “FABLE Net-Zero Pathways” was released by the United Nations – Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN). It is based upon results from joint scientific modelling by 20 countries covering all major world regions. All countries and regions are profiled according to their food and land use. Six different types of mitigation profiles have been created from this information.

The typology created is based upon three criteria: a) food consumption patterns; b) land-based CO2 removal potential; c) AFOLU (agriculture, forestry, and other land use) emissions’ patterns. Countries which are high emitters but also have great potential to offset mitigation through dietary changes and reforestation or afforestation, such as the US, are classified under Profile 1. Countries which are high emitters but have very limited potential to offset emission through afforestation are classified in Profile 4. This includes most of western Europe, Argentina and China. Countries such as India fall under Profile 6 where agricultural emissions dominate, but per capita food consumption is not excessive and have limited potential to abate CO2. Using these typologies, tailored steps for emissions abatement and sustainable production and consumption are identified.

This is relevant in helping develop the action agenda of nations, especially with respect to the upcoming COP-27 deliberations in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. Countries with excessive food consumption (such as the US, Brazil, Russia, Germany or China) should focus on reducing their average calorie consumption and massive food waste. On the other hand, countries with consumption below excessive limits (such as Ethiopia or India) should increase their calorie consumption per capita to meet their food security targets and focus on reducing post-harvest food losses. Analysis from the policy assessment shows that these shifts will lead to a substantial reduction in global demand, production, and trade of animal-sourced food and feedstock. In turn, this will result in slashing down crop and livestock emissions significantly between 2020 to 2050.

The analysis also throws light on different mitigation approaches that need to be followed by different regions as the challenges of every region are different. This is relevant particularly for the Global South, because policies that fit developed countries are not relevant in their context. Rather, the South should seek investments from richer countries (and increase their own expenditure) on research and innovation for sustainable food systems, resource (especially water) management and climate-resilient agricultural practices.

For India, a food systems approach that reduces overdependence on cereal crop production and increases investment in cultivation of pulses, coarse cereals or millets and legumes is needed. A study focussed on India in the journal, Environmental Research Letters, shows that this alone will be able to cut emissions from the agri-food sector up to 80 per cent by 2050, without compromising on the nutritional threshold minimum daily energy requires. India should carve a clearer agricultural water-use policy and discourage ultra-processed foods that spike sugar and palm oil requirements. India’s biofuel policy that excessively focuses on ethanol also needs to be reconsidered, given the excessive water requirements for sugar crop production, that may threaten one resource (water) to protect another (fuel). A policy that focuses on sourcing ethanol from sugarcane waste is needed.

In a country like India, small and marginal farmers form the majority and agricultural production decisions are made as a response to government policies such as minimum support prices, import protection, and credit availability. Increased out migration and incidences of droughts and floods in light of climate change have made agricultural production less profitable. These features make it challenging to develop a long-term agricultural strategy, especially with respect to sustainable practices. Nevertheless, since actions towards GHG mitigation from food, land, and agriculture have immense co-benefits with respect to human nutrition, soil health and water conservation – these should be central to our domestic strategies.

According to media reports, the five key focus areas for the upcoming COP-27 will be nature, food, water, industry de-carbonisation and adaptation. Four out of these can be directly impacted by changing food habits and adoption of sustainable agricultural practices. However, for this, countries must align their local goals with global common objectives. Recent scientific evidence suggests that this is possible, but only if policymakers and stakeholders urgently sit together and talk. As the age-old saying goes, common trouble calls for collective dining.

The writer is a faculty member at IIM Ahmedabad and Chairperson of its Centre for Management in Agriculture. The article includes inputs from FABLE scientist, Vartika Singh.