Stepping Stones For Sustainable Food Systems

We’ve heard it a bunch of times now from different people and various sources: our current global food systems and patterns of consumption are unsustainable for human and planetary health. Sustainable food systems are a must.

Perhaps you don’t want to cut down on your meat consumption. Eating meat makes you happy. It’s associated with wealth. You remember that our human ancestors ate meat. It’s an important element of a well-rounded diet. Eating meat has a social component.

Then again, the global food system contributes significant to human greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. To meet critical climate goals, dietary change is necessary. Plant-based alternative foods are playing a huge role in the transition towards sustainable food systems.

Food consumption worldwide is largely untenable. Food production accounts for:

  • 21 to 37% of the world’s greenhouse gas production
  • 70% of freshwater consumption

You might say, okay, I get it. Industrial agriculture generates way too much carbon. But aren’t there also several leverage points across the food system?

What about increasing agricultural productivity, in particular cropland yields? Can’t agriculture companies target on-farm energy use, such as fossil fuels for field operations? Won’t changing the quantity and composition of livestock feed intake make a difference? Or can’t different cattle grazing patterns be established? Won’t high tech animal waste management systems make a big impact?

An EPA report from May, 2022, indicates that agriculture sector emissions produce 11% of total US GHG emissions. The analysis affirms that revisiting practices in animal agriculture can reduce GHG emissions. Different livestock feed can reduce methane (CH4) emissions from enteric fermentation and increase productivity. Manure management systems can reduce the CH4 that is released into the atmosphere — anaerobic digesters installed to manage manure and capture and use CH4.

These are important, albeit mostly voluntary and non-federal compliance carbon offset programs to reduce carbon emissions. However, these mitigation approaches do not begin to negate the effects of diet on the agricultural sector GHG emissions. Indeed, diets with a high meat demand produce the highest GHG emissions, especially if focused on ruminant meat and milk.

The UK Climate Change Commission recommends a decrease in meat and dairy products of 20% by the year 2030 and a 35% reduction by 2050.

What’s absolutely required to reduce GHG emissions globally?

  • Reduce emissions within the food systems.
  • Create clean energy sources for transportation, construction, buildings, and agriculture.

It’s Clear: We Need to Move to Sustainable Food Systems

The UK’s National Diet and Nutrition Survey of more than 15,000 individuals showed that the number of people eating plant-based alternative foods nearly doubled from 2008 to 2019, jumping from 6.7 to 13.1%. Young people in generation Y (11-23 years old) and millennials (24-39 years old) were the age groups most likely to consume plant-based alternative foods. Women were also 46% more likely to consume plant-based replacement foods than men.

“A global transformation towards sustainable food systems is crucial for delivering on climate change mitigation targets worldwide,” said study co-author Pauline Scheelbeek of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. This becomes especially true in high- and middle-income settings.

“Plant-based meat and dairy alternatives are being further explored and developed as a strategy to reduce consumption of animal-sourced foods,” Scheelbeek continued. “The willingness to reduce meat intake among populations in many European countries has increased rapidly over the past decade. Unfortunately, this does not always result in actual dietary change. The plant-based alternative foods could be a stepping stone for people that are willing to reduce meat consumption but find it hard to fit this into their daily lives.”

Plant-based foods are products made from plant proteins such as soya, pea, nuts, oats, and mycoproteins. They are intended to taste and have textures a lot like their animal-based counterparts: cuts of meat, milk products, and other dairy items.

C Sinks & Plant-Based Agriculture

“Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.” — Albert Einstein

A carbon (C) sink is anything that absorbs more carbon from the atmosphere than it releases. The ocean, soil, and forests are the world’s largest C sinks.

Managed grassland is agricultural land used to grow grasses or herbaceous forage largely used for animal agriculture grazing. Data shows that net global climate warming caused by managed grassland cancels the net climate cooling from C sinks in sparsely grazed and natural grasslands. In the face of future climate change and increased demand for livestock products, sustainable management to preserve and enhance soil carbon storage in grasslands is essential, as is reducing greenhouse gas emissions from managed grasslands.

A 2020 study that examined the carbon emissions from various diets ranging from meaty-heavy to vegan concluded that, for 2050, the lowest GHG emissions point to vegan and vegetarian diets. That’s related to the large C sinks generated by a lower demand for livestock feed. The lowest emissions scenarios emerge with vegan diets. The research suggests that, for diets high in meat consumption, substituting plant-based alternatives can be beneficial to the environment.

Plant based nutritionally-relevant food group aggregates include beans & pulses, nuts & seeds, vegetables, meat, milk, other dairy products, plant-based meat alternatives, plant-based dairy alternatives, and plant-based milk alternatives.

They have slowly, but steadily, increased their market share as many groceries and restaurants have included plant-based entrees in their available selections.

Final Thoughts about Sustainable Food Systems

It appears unlikely that the agricultural sector will be able to meet global climate targets without concurrent significant dietary change on the consumer side.

Lisa Moon, president and CEO of The Global FoodBanking Network, argues in the Food Tank that COP26 failed to adequately acknowledge the relationship between food systems and climate change. The effects of a warming climate can decimate food systems and exacerbate food insecurity and economic instability. At the same time, food systems can intensify global warming through the widespread use of unsustainable farming and land management practices and gas greenhouse-emitting food loss and waste.

The Global FoodBanking Network’s (GFN) mission is to nourish the world’s hungry through uniting and advancing food banks. They are an international nonprofit that works towards a hunger-free future in more than 40 countries by sustaining, uniting, and strengthening food banks. They believe that food banks are an integral and viable solution in empowering the world to defeat hunger and change lives.

Several other organizations are working at the intersection of food and climate change. We can join them in their advocacy work to lower agricultural industry GHG emissions.



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