An appetite for change

The food industry remains relatively untouched by international pressure to reduce carbon emissions, but desperately requires a monumental shift from top to bottom to start making a difference.

If cows made up a country, it would be the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, overtaking India by some margin.

A supermarket chain in Germany last week began selling products at the ‘true cost’ taking into account their impact on the environment across 2,150 of its branches. Yoghurt went up by 31 per cent, sausages by 88 per cent, mozzarella by 74 per cent, and Maasdam cheese up by 94 per cent. Vegan schnitzel saw the smallest price increase - at only five per cent. 

Foodwatch, a Berlin-based advocacy group, called the campaign "a PR stunt", highlighting the fact that the supermarket chain has consistently decreased prices of environmentally damaging foods. The initiative has, however, has brought attention to the true cost of what we’re eating.

The food industry remains relatively untouched by international pressure to reduce carbon emissions, but desperately requires a monumental shift from top to bottom to start making a difference. We need to find new and practical ways of adapting to the climate crisis. 


Last month the Copernicus programme, based in Brussels, warned of serious drought in France, Italy and Spain that will greatly impact Europe’s food supply. Underdeveloped countries used to stand more or less alone against such threats, but now every continent is united in trying to tackle the climate crisis.

Whilst transport, deforestation, and heavy industries have been picked apart by climate experts, the impact that the food industry has on greenhouse gas emissions has often been unwittingly overlooked. 

Indeed, the single greatest cause of deforestation is to make room for livestock to keep the industry running. Without changes to agriculture and human diets, the targets to tackle the climate crisis by reducing greenhouse gas emissions will fall short and become unattainable.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) recently reported that 17 per cent of food fit for consumption worldwide went into rubbish bins. If you must throw out food, try composting first. But the supermarkets are also culprits.  
We live on a planet with just over eight billion people. And the volume of food and products we consume today is greater than ever before. Our food has come at a large cost to our environment because of high levels of pollution associated with production. This is just isn’t sustainable. Asked last year what he thought people should do to tackle the climate crisis, the chair of the IPCC, Hans-Otto Pörtner, said: “Eat less meat”. 


Do I eat meat? Yes. Do I eat dairy? Yes. Do I believe that eating what I like is more important than the planet? No, of course not. I don’t want to tell people what to eat, and that would also make me a meat and dairy-eating hypocrite. But we must consider the environmental impact of our eating habits and sort out the food industry. 
Half of all habitable land is used for agricultural purposes, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. By comparison, less than per cent percent of the world’s ice-free, non-barren land was used for farming a thousand years ago. 

If cows made up a country, it would be the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, overtaking India by some margin.

Around 80 per cent of that land is used for livestock for consumption, but this livestock, though taking up roughly 80 per cent of agricultural land, only gives us 37 per cent of our protein. The end doesn’t justify the means in the case of meat production. 
To put this into perspective, if cows made up a country, it would be the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, overtaking India by some margin.

The four greatest contributing factors are: methane from cattle’s digestion, nitrous oxide from fertilizers, CO2 from deforestation, and the use of fuel on farms for several uses. We must take deforestation out of the supply chain. It’s representative of a short-sighted and outdated model. 

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, the current food industry is unsustainable and has already contributed to land degradation, nutrient losses, loss of biodiversity, and water scarcity. The European Environment Agency (EEA) says that food production accounts for around 10 per cent of all emissions in the EU and warn that it could be out of hand by 2030. 

And to add strain, the UNDP predicts that food demand globally will increase by 50 percent by 2050 - not only affecting land and soil degradation, but also increasing the carbon emissions involved in food production. Such predictions have been proved right in the past. 

But, despite all of this, agriculture is the highest-emitting industry without a low-carbon plan. McDonald’s, Starbucks, Greggs, and other major chains need to make sure their suppliers practice sustainable farming. 

Two years ago, Nestle – the world’s largest food company – committed to investing $1.3 billion over five years to help farmers transition to regenerative agricultural techniques. A small step towards greater efforts. 


What is less clear are the tangible efforts being taken to alleviate food and water shortages for the most vulnerable people. A conservative estimate suggests that over 400 million people have no access to safe drinking water or the most basic of diets needed to live.

And the World Food Programme reports over 900,000 people worldwide living in famine-like conditions. Ten times more than five years ago. A further 828 million don’t know when they will next eat, and the climate crisis – not conflict – is the leading cause of these extreme food shortages.

The responsibility must lie with the richest nations and corporations to work hand in hand to address this appalling inequality and to take a large part of the financial burden involved in investing in new sustainable models for the food supply chain. There is money for other things at short notice, there’s certainly money for this.

According to the World Bank, the support provided to agriculture and food far exceeds $700 billion annually on mitigating the effects of climate destruction as a direct result of the food industry. Instead of their reactive approach, that money would be better spent on preventative measures and on sustainable farming. 


Whereas the transport sector measures its emissions, only one in four meat, fish and dairy producers measure theirs, and only about half of those who do act to reduce them. No one knows exactly how damaging the food industry is to the environment, but transport makes up a large percentage of the industry's greenhouse gas emissions and it’s probably higher than that. 
Food retailers know that it’s unusual for a customer to complain about the low cost of a piece of meat, the same has been true throughout history. And yet we cannot go on acting like cheap meat is only that, cheap meat. The true cost is visible in the large-scale farms and industrial agricultural technology wreaking unimaginable damage on animals, our ecosystem, and us.

Today, there are no legal incentives for large food corporations to act responsibly. They can sign onto as many net-zero, low-carbon emissions as they like, but until there are laws protecting our planet from one of its most destructive industries, the change that is necessary will never come. 

What can be done about this? Get involved in politics. We all need to be more political; writing letters, signing petitions, and sharing important climate news as widely as possible. Politicians and lawmakers need to feel the pressure of people breathing down their necks, asking them to make the necessary changes and start effectively regulating sectors such as the food industry.

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Joshua Lizarraga Curiel is a UN speechwriter and communications adviser.

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