Sustainable Investing Decarbonizing the economy: The environmental impact of what we eat

Decarbonizing the economy: The environmental impact of what we eat

One of the significant, possibly unexpected sources of manmade greenhouse gases (GHG) is agriculture and food production. The global food system is responsible for at least 25% of GHG emissions, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. With increasing wealth across the planet, coupled with a growing population – which the UN predicts will reach 9.8 billion in 2050 and 11.2 billion in 2100 – the demand for food will surely rise.

In the aim of reducing CO2 as well as more potent methane emissions, the sectors responsible for the bulk of emissions are pursuing less GHG-intensive practices. Some of the more promising solutions stem from innovation.

Changing the way we farm

Creative, non-traditional farming techniques, such as the vertical layering of crops, are showing promise. Vertical farming, which may be combined with controlled-environment agriculture (CEA) to ensure ideal growing conditions, seeks to reduce the use of land while increasing the efficiency of single crops. Although vertical farming requires more electricity than a traditional greenhouse, CEA can optimize the use of water and energy and decrease land usage and labor costs.

Gene-editing technologies can also increase the size of plants and make them more resistant to disease and drought. The result is heightened economic and environmental efficiency since less land and machinery are needed for seeding, cultivating and harvesting. And as agriculture improves land usage, reforestation can also take place.

Changing the way we consume

Shifts in consumer preference are also driving change. For one, there is growing awareness around the impact of how we eat, from both a resource depletion and GHG emissions standpoint. Much of the concern centers on livestock given that animals reared for consumption – taking into account the land used to grow their feed – collectively require an estimated 32.1 million km² of land, roughly the size of Africa (2019 Credit Suisse report, “Alternative Proteins: Exploring the Asian appetite and conservation potential”). With 1 kg of beef resulting in the equivalent of 46.2 kg CO2 emissions, compared with 5.4 kg for chicken, certain foods are under more scrutiny than others (UN Food and Agricultural Organization).

Comparison of emissions

CO2 equivalents per kg meat

CO2 equivalents per kg meat

Source Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)

Food for thought

As millennials tend to be health-conscious as well as engaged with environmental issues, they are adapting their dietary habits in favor of more nutritious, sustainable foods e.g. plant-based options and alternative proteins. In fact, the “planetary health diet” proposed in the 2019 EAT-Lancet report – with the goal of improving human health while ensuring environmentally sustainable food production – recommends that no more than 6% of daily protein intake come from animal-based sources. As the report states: “Food is the single strongest lever to optimize human health and environmental sustainability on earth.”

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