If anyone still wasn’t clear about the urgency to act to stop climate change, another Northern Hemisphere summer of extreme weather has given us a glimpse of how immediate the threat already is. Catastrophic floods killed scores and caused massive damage in Germany, Belgium and the UK; wildfires swept through large swathes of the Mediterranean, ravaging rural communities; record-breaking heat waves battered typically cool northern latitude regions in Canada and Siberia.
By now, most decision-makers have realized it’s high time we took action. The United Nation’s upcoming COP26 climate change conference, in Glasgow between October 31 and November 12, will be a chance to channel the attention into real policy change. Still, there is a glaring hole in the debate about the ecological emergency, which tends to focus on fossil fuel producers, car manufacturers and heavy industries like steelmaking and shipbuilding. Of course, we need to continue to ramp up renewable energy production, but there is a major factor contributing to the environmental wreckage that never gets the attention it deserves: agriculture.
“Climate change and food are strictly interrelated,” says Marta Messa, Director of Slow Food Europe. “The way we produce, process, distribute and consume food […] can contribute to climate change or help tackle it.”
We should talk about the impact on the planet of industrial, intensive agriculture — the type that farms vast amounts of land with the help of machines, pesticides, fertilizers and the like. Its relationship with the climate crisis is well documented in scientific literature. The global food system is responsible for about 26% of man-made carbon emissions — including CO2, methane and nitrous oxide. And this is only one example of its negative impacts on the environment: the others include biodiversity loss, desertification, deterioration of ecosystems, soil and water pollution. Fertilizers, for instance, are among the main culprits of bee die-offs.
According to Elena Višnar Malinovská, Head of the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Climate Action, the systems for producing and distributing food are responsible for 60% of territorial biodiversity loss and 24% of greenhouse emissions. “We need to bring industrial farming to an end,” she declared.
What’s particularly striking is how little the sector has improved over the past several decades on the environmental front, even while other industries are making strides to lower their carbon footprint. Why have policymakers and the public given industrial agriculture a free pass for so long? In part, this may be explained by the ultimate importance given to the necessity that humans are well fed. “We all need to eat…” is a common refrain.
But there are other forces at work. The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, for example, earmarked more than €100 billion for “climate spending” between 2014 and 2020 — only to watch as agricultural greenhouse gas emissions did not budge. And while EU governments have at least attempted to set emission reduction targets for other sectors by 2030, they failed to set any for agriculture.
Another kind of food production is possible, one based on sustainability and ecology, and led by small, conscientious producers. Some call it agroecology: a type of farming that applies ecological concepts to optimize the relationships between plants, animals, humans and the environment. To take just one example, agroecology includes the targeted planting of forests in hotspots of environmental pressures to sequester agricultural emissions. But it also means eating more healthily — with a diet that includes more fruit and vegetables, ideally from local sources, while limiting animal-based products both in reduced quantity and higher quality.
Scientists have begun to document how non-industrial agriculture is more sustainable: according to a recent Nature Sustainability study, small-scale agriculture offers more yields and is better at preserving biodiversity.
Much of the industry, however, is aggressively moving in the opposite direction, focusing on tech-heavy solutions rather than a locally-driven ecological transition. Instead of putting the relationship between humans and nature at the center of efforts to make the food industry sustainable, more and more attention is directed to genetic innovation, feed additives and precision agriculture.
The multiple environmental crises we are facing will not be solved by some utopian technological fix to save us from the brink of disaster. We must confront every aspect of our lives that are contributing to ecological degradation and climate change. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and do the hard work it takes to change the way we live in harmony with our surroundings — and make our food more sustainable, respectful, ecological. It’s high time agriculture was given the attention it needs at COP26.
Be part of the solution by signing our Slow Food Climate Action Pledge here.