Can food be Climate Smart? A review of Dave Reay’s book

(Source: Dave Reay. Climate-Smart Food (p. 15). Springer International Publishing.)

Climate smart food system is proposed to be a method to increase productivity and resilience while simultaneously reducing greenhouse gas emission. Climate change poses an existential threat to us as a species and to various other ecosystems. The IPCC projections of increase in temperature indicates catastrophic results even for the most optimistic model.

Paris Climate Conference framework has catalysed a global response to climate change through individual and cooperative action among almost all the nations around the world. To achieve safe emission budget, there has to drastic actions taken and food security would be a major factor in deciding on those actions. 

World food system contributes over a quarter of the emissions. However, the increasing number of climate catastrophes such as floods, droughts and cyclones have made agriculture in a lot of countries extremely vulnerable.

The author takes a pessimistic view on the climate crisis and the potential impact of agricultural activity has on the issue. He proposes that a 10 billion population that we are projected to achieve by mid 21st century is an issue. Feeding that many people would, according to the author, increase the carbon budget on agricultural industry. 

My contention is that, with proper redistribution of the means of producing food grains and the capacity to distribute them democratically could lead to a reduction on the current carbon emissions without needing to increase the output of the agricultural sector by much. A large portion of the farmlands are cultivated for the purpose of growing fodder for cattle and other livestock in the meat industry. Cash crops also contribute largely to the land available for farming and in most cases ruins the fertility due to mono culture. 

The author even explains this in his study as,

“One in nine people alive today don‘t have enough to eat, while two billion of us consume too much. Western diets have become much more calorie and meat intensive, ramping up emissions and damaging the health of both humans and the planetary systems we all depend on [6]. At the same time a billion people are lacking enough protein, one-third of children under five are stunted and some two billion people suffer from micronutrient deficiencies. Tragically, around a quarter of all the food produced for human consumption doesn’t even get eaten [9]. At an annual cost of nearly $1 trillion, global food loss and waste accounts for an estimated 8 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions—if wasted food were a country it would come behind only China and the US in the list of biggest emitters on the planet.”

(Dave Reay. Climate-Smart Food (p. 12). Springer International Publishing. Kindle Edition.)

The study covers 12 food items that is commonly consumed in Scotland and tracks its movement from across the lobe in order measure and analyse the emissions and carbon footprint. The study found that a typical 4 course meal for a single day by a Scottish person would consist of food items that, on an average, travels 40,000 miles  to reach the plate. Key findings of the study was that, food items that has the biggest overall footprint were chicken, milk and fried food. However, coffee and tea have a very high emission per gram actually consumed. 

Our global food value chain is becoming increasingly vulnerable to the melting of ice caps in arctic region and Himalayas, threats of fire, pests and disease etc. Although the food has travelled 40,000 miles to reach the table, it has the potential to contribute only very less (if air travel is avoided) compared to the footprint produced on the farms or storage or cooking. 

Although meat consumption volume has increased 10 folds globally, there has been a reduction in the varieties and the amount of meat consumed in the US and the UK. In 

Reay’s family, processed meat was the first to be affected by this shift in practice due to health concerns and reported carcinogenic factors. Subsequently, the influence n conscious sustainable consumption has resulted in reduction in the consumption of ruminants, beef and lamb, specifically due to the carbon intensive nature of their production. The author also found success in meat alternatives and vegan options resulting in the reduction of pork consumption. However, the consumption of chicken and eggs have remained almost constant.  They have started growing their own hens or the egg. Cutting down on milk from dairy farms and shifting to a plant milk has reduced the carbon footprint by two thirds. They also have ideated to include insects as part of their diet similar to two billion people worldwide and could be a viable protein alternative to the western diets. 

The author claims that, a shift sustainable dietary practices have bigger benefits for both the planet and individual’s health. An estimated 10 million lives could be saved each year through this practice. My contention with this thrust of climate action on individuals and abdicating the responsibility from the corporates and governments who are the overwhelming contributors to the global carbon footprint is quite subversive and deceiving people of the real reason for the issues. By such subversive practices we will fail to hold negligent users and big polluters accountable for their actions.

Reay also recognises the immense threat such a drastic shift could have on the livelihood of farmers in current global value chain and could lead to further biodiversity loss for new crop demands. Climate change and impact  projections have been too broad and imprecise for it to benefit the individual farmer dependent on local factors for production. The author claims that the reluctance of farmers to embrace new varieties of high yielding seeds as a consequence of availability and local perception. However, I contend that it also has corporate oppressing the rights of the individual farmers who resist the adoption of their seed varieties and other amenities to practice the prescribed farming method, which in many cases has led to the degradation of soil and food quality (let’s not forget the climate impact as well). 

Raey contends that we would be better sensitised towards this issue if we are not separated from the producers of food. However, this is the same commodity fetishism that has populated this global food value system to persist and grow unsustainably.  

Reay proposes that the solution to the climate risk of agricultural value chain must have a stockholder centric approach, especially focussing on the producers and the local context of food production. Only through this approach could designing and applying solutions to the food value chain be climate sensitive.

The author concludes with the inversion of the famous quote by Patrick Geddes, ‘Think Local, Act Global’. We must strive to learn from the local levels with local context to understand the complexities of the problem. He also proposes a collaborative effort between consumers and producers to combat the issues of climate change on global food value chain.

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