The enhanced global emission of greenhouse gases has increased the Earth’s temperature and climate change, which is associated with severe weather, disease, forest fires, pests, and drought. This rapid climate change is putting the food system at risk, and different aspects of the food industry, such as production, processing, and distribution, have significantly contributed to greenhouse gas emissions. This article discusses how a warming world has affected the food industry and the various measures undertaken to combat the issue.
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Impact of Climate Change on Food Production
Climate change has threatened global food production as it is associated with extreme weather conditions, drought, pests, fires, and diseases. Warmer temperatures increase the length of the growing season. Even though some crops, such as sugar beet and leafy vegetables, benefit from an increased warm period, the yield of other crops (e.g. cereals) is significantly compromised.
Wheat, rice, maize, and other crops have significantly declined in many countries due to extreme heat, severe weather, and droughts. For instance, a recent drought across France has wrecked agricultural production, and the farmers have had to seek government help to deal with their losses.
Changes in rainfall patterns, reduced water availability for irrigation, and prolonged dry conditions have significantly affected agricultural production. Recently, the emergence of locust swarms, due to unusually heavy rains, destroyed many crops across East Africa and Southwest Asia, significantly affecting food supplies.
Livestock is significantly impacted by heat stress. For instance, dairy cows experience lower productivity in increased temperatures, and crop production and livestock rearing are significantly affected.
If climate change is not addressed optimally at the global forum, it will disproportionately affect the most vulnerable people and further increase instability.
Sustainable Agriculture and Farming Practices
Agriculture is not only impacted by climate change but is also a significant contributor and a potential solution to climate change.
Over one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions result from food production, distribution, and consumption. Some critical contributors of greenhouse gas linked with food production are livestock raising, manufacturing synthetic fertilizers, and rice cultivation.
Sustainable agricultural and farming practices, such as regenerative agriculture, precision agriculture, and agroforestry, have significantly reduced greenhouse gas emissions, reducing agricultural contribution to climate change.
Agroforestry is associated with the conservation of trees and the cultivation of crops in the same pasture. This system reduces the greenhouse gas level in the atmosphere by creating an additional carbon sink on farms. Restoration of degraded or abandoned farmlands reduces greenhouse gas emissions and decreases the risks of landslides and soil erosion.
Precision agriculture is associated with using advanced technologies to reduce agriculture inputs (e.g. irrigation, fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides) by site-specific applications.
Standard technologies used in precision agriculture are global positioning systems (GPS), geographic information systems (GIS), and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones. Effective use of technologies can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve farm productivity.
Regenerative agriculture enhances farm resilience by boosting sustainability and biodiversity. This holistic approach to agriculture is associated with minimal soil disturbance, retaining biodiversity, limited use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, adapting to the local environment, and keeping soil covered with vegetation as long as possible. This type of agriculture improves soil health.
Many food companies have employed regenerative agricultural methods. For example, General Mills, an American food company, aims to deploy this agricultural system across one million acres of farmland by 2030. It wishes to demonstrate that farms are not required to use conventional methods to generate the highest yields.
General Mills has launched a series of pilots to assess the impact of using a regenerative system of sustainable farming and agriculture based on economic resilience, water use, biodiversity, soil health, and animal health and well-being. The pilot programs are designed to help farmers understand how they will benefit by following this agriculture system.
Innovative Technologies in Alternative Food Production
The US is one of the largest meat-eating nations because of its historical success in the meat industry and quick adaptation to technologies, such as long-range transport and refrigeration.
A recent study reported that the US meat industry processes approximately 10 billion animals annually. However, large-scale meat production is associated with adverse environmental effects, including an enhancement in greenhouse gas emissions and overuse of land and water.
The increasing awareness about the adverse effects of conventional meat production has led to an increase in demand for plant-based meat alternatives and lab-grown meat products. Currently, the alternative meat market is a fast-growing industry, and 70% of its consumers are not vegetarian or vegan. Some popular food joints offering alternative meat products are Burger King and Beyond Meat.
Although the production cost of lab-grown meat is high compared to real meat, scientists are working to reduce the price without compromising the taste, texture, and nutrition level. For instance, the first lab-based hamburger developed in 2013 using cow stem cells cost $332,000, which has been reduced to $50.
Comparing the nutritional quality of plant-based burgers and real meat burgers, it has been observed that plant-based burgers have more sodium content than beef burgers. The levels of calories, fat, and saturated fat levels were similar in both burgers. However, compared to the production of real meat burgers, plant-based burgers are associated with 90 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions.
Factors and Strategies to Promote a Resilient Food System
Food security and food supply will be seriously affected due to rapid climate change. The ongoing increase in temperature affects crop production and livestock in various ways, such as negatively influencing pests and pollinators and promoting disease outbreaks. Climate change also shocks the supply chain by indirectly disrupting labor and other markets, as seen during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated that the extent of climate change in an individual region will differ due to the differential abilities to mitigate and adapt to the changes. Considering the negative impacts of climate change, there will be a significant decrease in the global yield of maize and wheat. In addition, the fishing industry will also experience significant disruption.
Food system resilience ensures that the food system withstands and recovers from shocks. In addition to the global environmental change, over-food production undermines food system resilience. An increased homogenization of crops has also disrupted food system resilience.
A resilient food system ensures stable food prices and improved food security. Reducing food waste is an important strategy to achieve food system resilience in the long term.
Diversity in livestock, crops, production systems, income streams, and suppliers increases food system resilience. Increasing flexibility and adaptability in the food supply chain will decrease food wastage at farm levels. Improved food stock management in the supply chain and homes will ensure proper food circulation.
Consumer Behavior and Government Policies for Sustainable Food Industry
Mass media campaigns and education have recently increased awareness of dietary risk factors. For instance, low consumption of fruits, legumes, and vegetables and high consumption of processed meats, salt, and refined sugar are associated with developing non-communicable diseases, such as cardiovascular diseases.
To combat the harmful effects of an unbalanced diet, governments have focussed on promoting the benefits of improved dietary habits at both individual and community levels through media campaigns.
Mass media campaigns have altered consumer choices and shaped the future of the food industry. The World Health Organization (WHO) proposes campaigns concerning healthy diets to prevent and control non-communicable diseases.
Online social networks have proved an essential medium for awareness campaigns for reducing food.
The lack of awareness about the impact of food waste and insufficient education about proper food preparation and storage methods lead to a significant amount of food wastage from households worldwide.
Many international organizations have aimed to reduce household food wastage by altering consumer behavior.
Typically, food waste reduction campaigns focus on decreasing food waste, reusing unconsumed food, and recycling food.
If food waste occurs, it must be valorized by converting it into valuable products, such as fuels and chemicals. For this to happen, stakeholders from public and private institutions must collaborate.
In addition to educational programs and campaigns, governments and policymakers can promote food loss or waste reduction through policies and financial incentives supporting inefficient food production and distribution. Technical assistance and financial support could be extended to agricultural extension services, and farmer subsidy programs could be formulated.
The government could control unfair trade practices, such as last-minute cancellations of food orders, by developing strict policies against these practices. Relaxation of barriers to food redistribution through policies would enable food suppliers to donate safe but unsold food to charities or those in need. The government must support policies regarding standardized food date labeling practices to remove confusion regarding food safety and reduce food wastage.
Continue Reading: Reducing Food Waste and Building a Circular Food System: Insights from the Founder of Too Good To Go
References and Further Reading
Goodwin, L. (2023) The Global Benefits of Reducing Food Loss and Waste, and How to Do It. [Online] Available at: https://www.wri.org/insights/reducing-food-loss-and-food-waste
The World's Food Supply is Made Insecure by Climate Change. United Nations. (2023) [Online] Available at: https://www.un.org/en/academic-impact/worlds-food-supply-made-insecure-climate-change
Capitão, C. et al. (2022) Developing healthy eating promotion mass media campaigns: A qualitative study. Frontiers in Public Health. 10. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpubh.2022.931116
Sandström, V. et al. (2022) Food system by-products upcycled in livestock and aquaculture feeds can increase global food supply. Nature Food. 3(9), pp. 729-740. https://doi.org/10.1038/s43016-022-00589-6
What You Need to Know About Food Security and Climate Change. (2022) The World Bank. [Online] Available at: https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2022/10/17/what-you-need-to-know-about-food-security-and-climate-change
Newton, P. et al. (2020) What Is Regenerative Agriculture? A Review of Scholar and Practitioner Definitions Based on Processes and Outcomes. Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems. 4, 577723. https://doi.org/10.3389/fsufs.2020.577723
Farming for a better climate: five case studies of regenerative agriculture. (2020) [Online] Available at: https://www.eitfood.eu/blog/farming-for-a-better-climate-five-examples-of-regenerative-agriculture-done-well
4 Innovations in Alternative Food Production and Implications for Food Systems. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2020) Innovations in the Food System: Exploring the Future of Food: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25523.
Bajželj, B. et al. (2020). The role of reducing food waste for resilient food systems. Ecosystem Services. 45, 101140. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecoser.2020.101140
Balafoutis, A. et al. (2017) Precision Agriculture Technologies positively contributing to GHG emissions mitigation, farm productivity and economics. Sustainability. 9 (8), pp. 1339. https://doi.org/10.3390/su9081339