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Rod Oram: Time to transform our global food systems

Rod Oram points to research showing the five biggest global dairy and meat processors, including Fonterra, have the same greenhouse gas footprint as ExxonMobil. He argues the global food industry needs to transform radically

Food is the biggest killer of people in both developed and developing countries. While good food keeps people alive, malnutrition from inadequate food, harmful foods and the ailments they cause such as obesity account for 27 percent of the burden of disease globally, and 18 percent in New Zealand.

And food production is the biggest cause of climate change. Land use patterns, fertiliser use and emissions from soil-tilling, rice paddies and ruminant animals generate more greenhouse gases than those from fossil fuels used for electricity generation and transport.

The two exacerbate each other. Some current industrial food production practices such as clearing of rainforests and farming of ruminant animals are contributing to climate change. But climate change is already threatening the volume and quality of some food production. Meanwhile the human population is predicted to increase by one-third by 2050 to 10 billion people, requiring much more food.

So, how can we radically reinvent the global food system to ensure we have healthy people and a healthy planet?

We’ll get our first guide in November with the report from the EAT-Lancet Commission On Healthy Diets From Sustainable Food Systems. It is a joint effort of Lancet, the British medical journal, and EAT Foundation, a Scandinavian NGO.

Our biggest and hardest choice

Hopefully, the report will help us as a nation make the big, far-reaching decisions we need to over the next few years on how we’ll make our economy low-emissions, high value and more sophisticated. By far our hardest choices are in agriculture, our largest source of emissions.

EAT was founded five years ago by Gunhild Stordalen (a Norwegian doctor), Stockholm University’s Resilience Centre (one of the world’s leading authorities on deep sustainability) and the UK’s Wellcome Trust (the largest philanthropic funder of health research in the world).

Its goal is to help the massive transformation required in diets and production. It is strongly supported by business through the likes of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, the World Economic Forum and dozens of multinational food companies.

EAT’s annual Stockholm Food Forum in June brought together some 600 delegates from the science, health, NGO, government and other sectors, with one-third overall from businesses such as Danone, Nestlé, Kellogg, Cargill (the world’s second largest meat processor) and Unilever.

At the opening of the conference, the health and ecosystems contexts were set by Dr Sania Nishtar, a Pakistani cardiologist who co-chairs the World Health Organisation’s Commission on Non-Communicable Diseases, and Professor Johan Rockström, executive director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

“Pandemic influenzas, cardiovascular disease, cancers, diabetes and certain chronic lung and other illnesses caused by unhealthy diets are threatening to wipe out the development gains of the past century,” Nishtar said. “And the risk threats can all be traced back to the food we eat and to food systems.”

Likewise, on climate change, “we will fail on the Paris commitments without transformation to sustainable, healthy food,” Rockström said. Just as disruptive, transformation innovation pathways are needed across all aspects of our lives to reach a fossil fuel free world by 2050, so too does food need disruptive change.

But if we act, “we can feed humanity within planetary boundaries” and tackle climate change thanks to “the synergies between sustainable food systems, carbon sequestration and achieving healthy diets.”

The challenges are daunting, though. The biggest is the heavy use of nitrates and phosphorous in artificial fertilisers. They constitute the largest current breach of the nine environmental processes that regulate the stability and resilience of the Earth’s natural systems, the Stockholm Resilience Centre’s research shows, although climate change itself will soon be the biggest overshoot of these nine planetary boundaries.

Huge waste of nitrates

Research in a European Commission project cited in a conference workshop found that only 8 percent of nitrates applied globally by farmers are used effectively by plants. US farming is one of the better performers at 11 percent and China among the worst at 4 percent.

The project found that reducing consumption of red meats and dairy products helped reduce the excessive nitrate burden on land. Yet such is the richness of European diets, a 50 percent cut in those foods would still give people a protein intake well above recommended levels.

Another great challenge is to achieve a greater diversity of food in diets for health and environmental reasons. Currently worldwide, three grain crops account for 60 percent of calories consumed by humans whereas there is a long-identified and vastly wider range of edible plants.

A third is how to work on change across all types of food production. Only one-third of human nutrition globally comes from industrial farming and food processing, while 50 percent comes from small scale farmers, and some 20 percent from fishing, farming and gardening by individuals to meet personal, family and community needs.

A culture clash, and an acknowledgement

At the conference there was a clear clash of cultures and goals between multinational food companies and leaders from some large organisations representing small scale farmers in Africa and India. But both sides expressed a willingness to work together on transformation of food systems in all their variety.

“Three year ago, agricultural companies didn’t know they were part of the problem,” Peter Bakker, chief executive of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, said in one of the conference sessions. “I’m very positively surprised how much that’s changed.”

One example is the Food Reform for Sustainability and Health programme run by the EAT Foundation and the WBCSD to work on systemic changes. Active participants in FReSH include some 35 major food multinationals such as Nestlé, Danone, Kellogg and PepsiCo.

Similarly, the World Economic Forum has its Shaping the Future of Food programme, which ranks alongside its other Systems Initiatives in areas such as economic progress, advanced manufacturing, digital economies, energy, healthcare, monetary systems and international investment and trade.

A third example is the C40’s Food Systems Network which is working on greatly increasing urban food production in sustainable ways. C40 began as a group of major cities engaging ambitiously on climate change mitigation and adaptation. It currently numbers 96 cities, including Auckland. They represent 25 percent of global GDP, one in 12 of the world’s population and they have committed to more than 10,000 actions to combat climate change.

A premium, lower emissions option

Currently here in New Zealand we take comfort from being efficient and trusted producers of dairy, meat and horticultural products desired by consumers overseas; and we do so in relatively low emission ways compared with many farmers abroad. Yes, new competitors are looming such as plant-based and lab-grown substitutes for meat which have lower environmental impacts. But there will still be a market for our premium foods, we reckon.

This simple view of the world, though, leads to two main arguments for cutting agriculture a lot of slack in climate policy: don’t penalise our farmers by forcing emissions cuts on them when their competitors overseas will be getting an easier ride from their governments; and anyway, methane, the main agricultural gas, is relatively short-lived in the atmosphere so it should be treated less stringently than carbon dioxide.

But such an approach would leave our farmers and food processors tinkering complacently with their conventional systems rather than joining the global push for transformative change to deliver healthy food and a healthy planet.

Bigger than ExxonMobil

Fonterra is already attracting critical coverage, such as in the latest annual report released last month by Grain, a European NGO tracking the greenhouse gas emissions of the world’s largest meat and dairy companies. It shows that the two largest dairy producers, Fonterra and Dairy Farmers of America, and the three largest meat companies, Tyson and Cargill of the US and JBS of Brazil, have in aggregate the same greenhouse gas footprint as ExxonMobil, the world’s largest investor-owned oil company. The methodology measures the emissions of the companies’ production processes and of the consumption of their products. Fonterra disputes the data which comes from the UN's Food and Agricultural Organisation.

Those major dairy and meat companies have no ambitions to greatly reduce their emissions over the next few decades. If they stick with that strategy while the rest of the global economy decarbonises by 2050, their sectors will account for the vast majority of human induced, climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions.

To avoid such a recipe for climate and commercial catastrophe they should begin to contribute to the reinvention of the global food system; and we should have climate change policies in New Zealand that require and encourage our meat and dairy companies to do so.

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