'Our relationship with food needs to change'

| 8th August 2019
Sustainable food production

Sustainable agriculture can lead to a more stable environment and a healthier economy in countries most affected by food scarcity.

https://www.pexels.com/photo/agriculture-backyard-blur-close-up-296230/
Agriculture and land usage are major climate threats, IPCC concludes.

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Agriculture has been the bedrock of human civilisation since 7000BC. There’s not a society on the planet that hasn’t been built around it.

But today the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concludes that cutting carbon emissions from transport and energy usage is not enough to tackle climate change.

In order to prevent the earth from heating to dangerous levels - 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels - we need to substantially change agriculture and land-usage.

Three problems

So when did agriculture - something we can’t picture life without - become such a problem? There’s three crucial points.

One was when we started to use “cheap” fossil fuels to replace human labour, ingenuity and working with nature. So now, it takes 10 calories of inputs to produce one of food. Once, not so long ago, it was one in to three out.

That was the second change - the introduction of huge volumes of herbicides, fungicides and pesticides. Hedges that has housed the predators of pests were grubbed up, ponds filled in, “weeds” eliminated to the point of absolute monoculture.

Finally, there was the shift to most “food” coming through supermarkets and multinational companies, which wanted uniform sizes and shapes, and tastes, around the world. So crops were wedged into unsuitable environments, just to feed multinational companies that wanted uniform products around the world.

When I visit the supermarket I am dumbfounded that products which are organic, free-range, palm-oil free or grass-fed are demarcated on stickers.

Environmentally chaotic

Whereas products which wreak havoc on biodiversity, come from land that was recently rainforest, that are intensively farmed and waste tonnes of water, are not stickered. These are the defaults.

We are subtly led to expect agriculture to be intensive, unsustainable, cruel, water-thirsty and environmentally chaotic unless a little sticker (and often a higher price tag) tells us otherwise.

If anything embodies what we’ve been led to believe is the norm, it is intensive animal farming. The IPCC emphasises a truth which has been known for years - yet met with general inertia from global leaders - that a rapid global shift to plant-based diets is necessary for human survival.

What the report makes clear is that farmed food which we could eat is wasted on feeding animals for slaughter. For every 100 calories fed to farm animals, between 15 and 30 calories make it into our stomachs as meat.

But no matter what food we buy - whether it is animal or plant - we are wasting far too much of it. Over a quarter of food that makes it past the farm door doesn’t end up in our stomachs.

Waste

Seventy percent of food is wasted by households - that equates to over 6 tonnes a year. The average household with children is spending £700 a year on food that ends up in the bin.

The land and water used in producing this food? Utterly wasted.  Whether it is by filtering it through animals for meat, or by throwing unused food into landfills - it is clear that we are producing far more food than we need.

In a climate emergency, wasting food, water and land at the rate we are currently going is unthinkable.

And yet food waste and land usage seem don’t seem to be very high on the agendas of world leaders. The IPCC report stresses that we are running out of time.

Whilst we sort our banana peels and egg shells into our composting heap, and carefully store our leftovers to eat later, farms are often forced by the purchasers of their crops to waste enough fruit and veg to feed Birmingham for a year.

Climate emergency 

UK households  binned £13 billion of edible food in 2017. Individual responsibility cannot be ignored, but looking into supermarkets, it is easy to see that responsibility is shared.

BOGOF (buy one get one free) encourages overpurchasing. Fruit and vegetable comes packaged in ways that makes buying just what you need impossible. Rampant confusion still reigns over “use by” and “best by” dates.

And a look at the ready meals, the promotions, the “luxury” ranges, show how much meat is still presented as the centre-piece of meals.

In his book Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer writes, “Just how destructive does a culinary preference have to be before we decide to eat something else?... If being the number one contributor to the most serious threat facing the planet (global warming) isn’t enough, what is?”

It is a question that is hard to answer, but one which all ecologists and environmentalists need to consider. We are in a climate emergency and our relationship with what we eat and how we farm it needs to change. Our window of time to be indifferent is up.

This Author 

Amelia Womack is deputy leader of the Green Party. 

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