In 2018, food systems accounted for roughly 33% of our global GHG emissions [note that many reports have more cautious estimates, like the IPCC’s 21-37% range]. Unsurprisingly, the farming stage – where crops or animals are grown – is responsible for the majority of our food system’s emissions.
On top of these emissions, farmlands [i.e. croplands and pastures] cover around half of the Earth’s habitable surface. With our current food system, that fraction is projected to rise to satisfy the demands of an increasing and increasingly wealthy population. Unfortunately, there’s a shortage of arable land in the world, and deforestation for agriculture is not a very good alternative. We’re going to have to rely on trees and their biodiversity to sequester carbon in the future, so destroying our long-term ally for an immediate result doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. That is, if there’s a way to change our current unsustainable food systems.
Animal-free diets are much better for the environment, in every single way. Between livestock consuming roughly a third of all grown crops, releasing massive amounts of GHGs, and causing roughly 67% of deforestation for agriculture, we have loads of reasons to adapt to different diets.
Basing our food systems around livestock production just doesn’t make sense. To feed the animals, we revert to land use conversion and/or provide livestock with nutritious plant-based meals, only to recover a fraction of the calories and protein input later.
There are plenty of policies and subsidies that governments can implement or remove to increase food security sustainably. However, it’s important for individuals to understand that unsustainable diets will have to change.
Plant-based diets can help the food industry reduce its land use by several million km2 by 2050, which would help us restore many green ecosystems worldwide. They could also help lower the food system’s GHG emissions by up to 8.0 Gt of CO2e per year by 2050. Developed countries and heavy meat eaters have the opportunity to cut down on their emissions the most, although it will take time. This transition can be facilitated by governments and food companies by effectively communicating food products’ impacts to customers. And as always, buying local, in season, and not wasting are surefire ways to decrease your footprint.
Food wastage reflects that it’s not just diets that need to change, it’s the whole food system. We can’t keep wasting a third of food produced for humans if our goal is to increase food security – while not destroying precious ecosystems.