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What (will) we eat?

What food production means for climate change?

When we hear climate change, our first thoughts automatically turn to carbon emissions and energy. Most of the talk today about the solutions we need to tackle climate change is about switching to cleaner forms of energy. Obviously this approach is to a large extent very well justified since we know that a large part of carbon emissions are indeed due to the production and use of energy. However, it is not the only source of the problem... So far little attention has been paid to how our diet and food production contributes to greenhouse gas pollution of the atmosphere, to general environmental problems and ultimately to climate change.

Food production contributes around 26% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which shows the very large impact our food has on the environment and its contribution to climate change. In general, the GHG footprint of food is caused by and traced through all stages of the production and supply chain, from land exploitation and farming (or husbandry) processes to food processing, packaging and distribution. However, in addition to GHG emissions, all individual stages of food production and distribution have other associated impacts such as increased (to wasteful) water and energy consumption, land use/exploitation, leakage of other pollutants, etc.

The three pillars "Food", "Energy", "Water" are the "cornerstone" of Sustainable Development according to the UN. As the world population has grown and gained more wealth, the demand for all three has increased rapidly over the last 100 years. At the same time, all three are interlinked, because food production requires water and energy, energy production also requires water resources, and finally, agricultural production can be a source of energy.

One of the biggest challenges we will face in the future is to ensure that alongside development and solutions to adaptation and mitigation of climate change, all people have access to nutritious but sustainably produced food.

It is now rather obvious that achieving the climate change targets requires both a change in our eating habits and a shift towards low-carbon foods, and the implementation of solutions in food production to reduce or eliminate greenhouse gas emissions. However, in addition to the zero or at least reduced emissions, changes should take into account the overall environmental footprint and other collateral factors, such as the need for water, land, the production of secondary pollutants and their diffusion into the environment (e.g. eutrophication).

Perhaps things are easier in the least developed or malnourished countries of the world. But in Western societies, shifting habits towards greener food will require huge investments and efforts to educate people. Do we have enough time to achieve this by 2050?


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