World Food Day: Why is Our Food System Broken?

The issues with our world's food system

Food is a topic close to all of our hearts (and stomachs), which means World Food Day is always a good opportunity to consider our current food system. 

Every year World Food Day asks us to consider what we eat and how we can improve food security for everyone. The organisation urges people to eat a healthier diet, increase literacy surrounding food labels, be mindful of food waste, recycle, and influence the market and politicians with their choices. 

The theme for 2021 is “Our actions are our future – better production, better nutrition, a better environment and a better life”, and with a cost of living crisis following the COVID-19 pandemic, what better time to think about how food systems affect people and the earth? 

At Go Eco we always take an environmental viewpoint, so let’s take a dive deeper into our food system, and how it impacts our planet.

Food Waste

Food waste – and waste of any kind – seems instinctively wrong to most people, and yet one third of food across the world is wasted every year. 

Wasting food is a problem as, beyond personal guilt, food waste contributes massively to climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that food waste contributes 8 – 10% of greenhouse gas emissions, more than the entire country of India. 

When food decomposes in landfill it releases methane gas, a pollutant which is 25 times more harmful than CO2 as it traps heat in the earth’s atmosphere. Organic matter decomposition in landfill is therefore an issue of major concern.   

The issue of food waste

In the UK 9.5 million tonnes of food goes to waste every year, the equivalent of 15 million meals, or three meals a day for every UK resident for 11 weeks. Meanwhile 8.4 million people in this country struggle to afford to feed themselves. 

The UN is aiming to halve food waste by 2030, and food waste charity WRAP are calling for special attention to be paid to the issue at COP26, due to be hosted in Glasgow at the end of the month. The CEO Marcus Glover says:

“A 50% reduction by 2030 is possible, but we need action as much as talk. And the benefits go far beyond the environment as a more sustainable food system is crucial to feed our expanding global population against a backdrop of changing climate and less predictable weather patterns.

“Policymakers must pay attention to the critical role food has in helping deliver Net Zero, and I intend to have those conversations at COP.”

Food Production

As the WRAP CEO alludes, food waste and our food production system are closely linked.

A study released in 2021 by the European Commission Joint Research Centre found that an estimated 25 – 42% of global emissions are caused by the agrifood system. 

Outside of ‘pre-farm gate’ emissions from livestock farming, other areas such as packaging, storage and environmental degradation are all causes of greenhouse gasses in the food chain.  

The comprehensive study found that distribution and processing have become significantly more energy intensive since the 1990s. Packaging – including pulp, paper and plastic – accounts for 5.4% of food system emissions. Meanwhile, an uptake in energy intensive appliances in retail like refrigerators has also contributed to the rise.   

Just under a third of food system emissions come from what researchers describe as ‘land use changes’, for example deforestation and soil degradation. Greenpeace estimates that 80% of deforestation is due to agriculture.   

Deforestation for agriculture

Lead researcher on the study, Andrian Leip, says,

“Food systems are in need of transformation.

“Mitigation by reducing emissions from deforestation and on the farm is already very much in the focus of many mitigation policies. 

“Our data shows an increasing significance of emissions from energy use, mainly post-farm gate, which shows the intricate link between the land and the energy systems.”

There are ways to reduce emissions, for example cutting meat and dairy from your diet can reduce your carbon footprint from food by almost three quarters. However, given the effects of distribution and processing, buying organic and local could also be beneficial.  

What does the future look like for food? 

By 2050 enough food will need to be grown to feed a global population of 10 billion. 

Currently, enough food is grown to feed the world’s 7.7 billion humans, but distribution and access mean roughly one tenth still go hungry. 

At the moment the biggest driver of world hunger is conflict, but this could soon change to climate change. 

In a tragic irony the very emissions caused by the food we grow could soon create conditions which makes food production more difficult. One third of global food production is at risk if current trends of greenhouse gas increases continue with the worst affected areas set to be South and South East Asia and the Sudano-Sahelian region of Africa, which contains 16 countries including Ghana, Nigeria and Sudan. 

Drought causing famine

This trajectory means that areas already struggling with a lack of resources will be the first to suffer from climate-related hunger, in fact some already are with Madagascar on the brink of what is believed to be the world’s first famine caused by climate change. 

If targets in the Paris Climate Agreement are met and warming is kept to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels then only 5-8% of food producing land will be lost. Yet, the increase of even half a degree to 2 degrees Celsius warming will further reduce food security.

Although the picture may look bleak, 2021 is being called a “super year” for actions as the UN hosted its first Food Systems Summit, COP26 takes place in Glasgow, and COP15 on biodiversity is held in Kunming, China. 

If sufficient agreements are made on farming, protected areas and carbon reduction, the worst damage to our food systems may be prevented.  

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