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Temperatures are rising too swiftly, and extreme weather events – flooding, droughts, storms – have become usual. Biodiversity is one of the first victims of this situation: sea levels are rising, glaciers are melting and most of this change is caused by human activity.
However, although climate issues are under world political debate, the relationship between food and climate, food system and environmental impact seems to have a marginal role.
Let’s try to understand to what extent an agricultural system causes or suffers from climate change.
FOOD and CLIMATE: OUTLOOK
In the last 100 years we have seen a global rise in temperature of 0,78° C. The last decade has been the warmest since 1880 (temperatures had not been measured accurately before then) and expectations are not optimistic. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report (2013), we are likely to see a temperature rise of about 1.8-4°C by 2100 relative to the end of the twentieth century. This change is largely attributed to the increase in carbon emissions and greenhouse gases: from 2000 to 2030 these are projected to rise from 9.7 to 36.7 billion tons per year.
Climate change means not only a rise in temperature, but also an alteration of climate system with serious consequences for ecosystems and human activities. In seas, for example, a 1-degree temperature rise could kill the eggs of hundreds of species and the limit oxygen concentration, causing serious consequences for living beings. The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change (2006) reported that agricultural practices – responsible for about 14% of global greenhouse gases – are the human activities that are most affected by climate change: frequent droughts, flooding and stifling heat affect all types of production, both vegetable and animal. A crop displacement has been estimated to shift northward by 150 km and higher by 150 metres for each 1°C of warming. New vineyards which produce champagne grapes are currently viable in Great Britain, something considered unbelievable a few years ago.
According to the Food Climate Research Network, the food chain system is one of the top causes of environmental pollution: from agriculture to consumption, (including production, processing, packaging, transportation, retailing, home storage, preparation and final disposal). It is thought to be responsible for one third of greenhouse gas emissions in Europe. The current food system is based on an industrial model whose main aim is to achieve profit maximisation and reach international markets: every year hundreds of thousands of hectares of mangroves are felled in south-east Asia to set up intensive shrimp-farming; in Brazil, more than a fifth of the Amazon forest has been already replaced by soya, corn and sugarcane plantations, used as fodder or to produce biofuel. Environmental protection is not a priority for the current model that prefers monoculture on a large scale, causing deterioration of lands, desertification, water pollution and biodiversity loss in addition to the direct consequences in terms of emissions and lower CO2 absorption. (FAO, 2014)
Standardisation is necessary for large-scale farming, transport and food processing. This method depends on fertilisers, synthetic pesticides and fossil fuel, relying on a long-range distribution system, which provides the same products in January or in August. This is also now the norm in the fruit and vegetable department. Consuming out-of-season food is becoming a habit and sometimes it stands for a symbol of economic welfare, progress and modernity. Tomatoes, strawberries or courgettes are in stock all year round, not only in supermarkets, but also in street markets. They come from the other end of world, picked prematurely, and left to ripen in cold storage. Alternatively, they are cultivated nearer to us but in greenhouses. In any case they require a great deal of water and energy, and often fossil fuels that are not renewable.
So, what should we do?
Starting from the level of the individual dietary choices, all of us can positively or negatively affect the environment, no matter what our job or expertise is. Food is an element that everyone shares, and food choices are the key factors to achieve good results in the short term. Changing dietary habits by opting for more sustainable foods and being aware of product traceability would limit the impact that human production and consumption have on climate change.
Meat is one of the most consumed foods in our houses. Every EU citizen consumes an average of 232 grams of meat per day. Besides being unhealthy, the consumption of meat has heavy environmental costs and a higher environmental impact than vegetable products: if every family eats 30% less meat and buys it only from extensive and local farming, CO2 emissions will be reduced by 1 000 kilos per year. (FAO, 2011)
Varying our diet, alternating animal proteins with vegetable ones and rediscovering the seasonality of food, can help reverse the current trend and fight the frailty of the current globalized food system: a plant or species – suited to its habitat – needs less care and input, it pollutes the environment less and might add economic value.
Not only when we eat, but also when we shop for food, our daily food choice must be informed regarding individual and collective health effects, environmental conservation and fairness. Making an informed purchase/shopping means asking questions, requesting information about the origin of food and production techniques, reading labels carefully and when it is possible, buying directly from producers. By supporting local foods, the chain of distribution becomes shorter as well as the time between crop-harvest and purchase, especially for fresh food. Furthermore, the relationship between producers and the environment will become strong, ensuring a fairer price for both producer and consumer. By so doing, buyers become co-producers and contribute to the producer’s aim. This does not mean defending autocracy and refusing all imported products, quite the opposite! If we modify our basic food consumption, we will manage to balance the impact of choices we make or we would like to make every time we have a cup of coffee or taste a piece of chocolate or some pineapple. In that case, kilometres are inevitable. But what’s the point of importing lettuce, green beans or pears if they can be grown in our own backyards?
 Much of the material presented in this article has been covered in more details in
FAO, Livestock’s Long Shadow, 2011
FAO, The State of Food and Agriculture, 2014
Food Climate Research Network, Cooking Up a Storm, 2008
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2013
Stern, Review Report on the Economics of Climate Change, 2006