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Plant-based diets key in tackling climate change: UN report warns food systems must undergo significant change

August 12, 2019
Food & Drink

A third of food produced is lost or wasted, while plant-based food could be key to the climate change fight, according to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s new Special Report on Climate Change and Land.

The report revealed that food systems must undergo a significant change to safeguard food security in light of global warming’s effect on fertile soil. “Responsible consumption is gaining ground. Consumers have started realizing that through everyday actions and conscientious decisions, they can have a positive impact. Research shows that more consumers shop to help people and the planet,” Henriette Walz, Global Lead Deforestation at The Rainforest Alliance, tells FoodIngredientsFirst.

Organizations including Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) and the Rainforest Alliance have applauded the report, and are calling for the global community to reform their practices.

The report notes that food loss and wastage add up to US$1 trillion each year and that the causes of food loss and waste differ substantially between developed and developing countries, as well as between regions. One example given of how climate change is driving waste is that heat stress reduces fruit set and speeds up the development of annual vegetables, leading to yield losses. Reducing overall food loss and waste would reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, with them accounting for 8-10 percent of the food system’s total GHG emissions between 2010 and 2016, according to the report.

“Everyone has a part to play in reducing food loss and waste,” an FAO spokesperson tells FoodIngredientsFirst. They note that reducing food loss and waste is critical to creating a zero hunger world and reaching the world’s Sustainable Development Goals. “For many people on the planet, food is a given. But for the staggering amount of over 820 million people who are hungry, food is not a guarantee. FAO aims to increase respect for food, as well as for the farmers who produce it, the natural resources that go into producing it and the people who go without it.”

Options such as improved harvesting techniques, on-farm storage, infrastructure, transport, packaging, retail and education could reduce food loss and waste across the supply chain, the FAO spokesperson notes.

“Consumers now expect companies to do more than make a profit. The growth of responsible agriculture certifications over the past 30 years demonstrates that consumers are paying attention and starting to take action,” adds Walz.

A plant-based diet to save the Earth?
The report also suggests that plant-based foods could be key to fighting climate change. It notes that the higher consumption of animal-based foods is associated with a higher estimated environmental impact, whereas increased plant-based food consumption is associated with a lower environmental impact. Ruminant meat (beef and lamb), in particular, has been consistently identified as the single food with the greatest impact on the environment, on a global basis, most often in terms of GHG emissions and/or land use.

“Balanced diets present major opportunities for adaptation to and limiting climate change. These can feature plant-based foods, such as coarse grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables, and animal-sourced food produced sustainably in low greenhouse gas emission systems,” says Debra Roberts, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group II.

Under the most extreme scenario in which no animal products are consumed at all, adequate food production in 2050 could be achieved on less land than is currently used, the report notes. However, the land-sparing effect should not be ignored. This is when land is abandoned as a result of low-meat diets reducing the required agricultural area, and re-growing vegetation takes up carbon until a new equilibrium is reached.

However, not all populations are able to adopt a plant-based diet. “In many countries and communities, animal-based foods are essential for energy, protein and vitamin intakes, and can make an enormous difference in the nutritional status of populations. For populations with animal-source food deficient diets, an increase in consumption, especially for vulnerable groups like children and mothers, is therefore recommended,” the FAO spokesperson explains.

Additionally, not all plant-based foods are equal, as many production approaches can be used for the same food. According to FAO, pesticides, herbicides or synthetic fertilizers can be used in a way that pollute the environment and harms micro-organisms and invertebrates – such as those that keep soils fertile, pollinate crops, or provide natural control from pests and diseases. As another example, some types of flooded rice production are known emitters of methane.

Agriculture, in general, is driving environmental issues according to Walz. “When huge areas of forest are cleared to make room for agriculture – as has been the case with many tropical commodities, such as bananas, palm oil, coffee, cocoa, and tea – we lose the carbon-sequestering power those forests provide. On a large enough scale, forest loss for agriculture can lead to a decrease of soil fertility, soil erosion, decreased water-holding capacity of the land, and reduced carbon sequestration potential of the land.”

“It is also crucial to consume a diversified diet to ensure a less intensive use of natural resources,” the FAO spokesperson adds. At a consumer level, people can also opt for sustainably grown products, buy from farmers’ markets or boycott foods seen as unsustainable.

By: Katherine Durrell

Source: Food Ingredients First

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