Still An Unhappy Marriage
A newsletter about food systems, climate change and everything connected to them
One of the first stories I wrote after moving to Rome nearly five years ago to focus solely on food systems issues was the nexus between food and climate change, and a quote from an expert I spoke to has stayed with me.
Andy Jarvis, associate director-general at The Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT (research director at the Colombia-based CIAT (International Center for Tropical Agriculture) at that time), called the relationship between climate and agriculture “an unhappy marriage”.
“(They) are absolutely intertwined and completely connected to each other but actually pretty antagonistic,” he said.
You see, agriculture is extremely vulnerable to climate extremes while farming emissions exacerbate global warming.
I love that quote and have used it many times since, and when I saw this latest report from the Global Alliance for the Future of Food about how food systems are rarely considered in NDCs (Nationally Determined Contributions aka countries’ blueprints on how they are going to limit/reduce their emissions), my first thought was that the unhappy marriage remains unhappy.
But this isn’t because the marriage is doomed. Far from it. There are many ways to improve it, but it seems both sides of the family aren’t working to tone down the protagonists’ tendency to hurt each other. Ok this metaphor becoming quite tangled so I’m going to retire it, but the essence remains.
We *can* make sure climate and agriculture are not antagonistic towards each other. We really should try our darndest to do that too, because their relationship has huge bearings on us.
Ok, back to the report. This is a more comprehensive document than the previous one the Global Alliance published during COP26 and which I covered in a previous newsletter (see below).
Then, it was a short presentation on 8 NDCs. Now, they’ve looked in detail at the NDCs of 14 countries - Bangladesh, Canada, China, Colombia, Egypt, the European Union (with a focus on national climate policies from France, Germany, and Spain), Kenya, Senegal, South Africa, the UK, the US, and Vanuatu.
You can find the individual country assessments here.
The document is for policymakers and other interested folks so it’s a little dry but there are a fair few interesting bits. I’ve read it and summarised the main findings and some of the extra interesting bits, so you don’t have to.
Don’t Count the Couple Out… Yet!
Food systems contribute to climate change but also have the potential to mitigate it.
For example, changing the way we produce and consume food could reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by more than 10 GT of CO₂ equivalent a year.
This is a bit more than emissions resulting from global transport and residential energy use combined in 2019 (so that’s pre-COVID). It is also equivalent to at least 20% of the cut needed by 2050 to prevent catastrophic climate change.
This number is the sum total of reductions from supply-side measures like curbing land-use change and enhancing soil carbon sinks (8.5 GT CO₂ eq) and demand-side measures like behavioural changes like cutting food waste and shifting diets (1.8 GT CO₂ eq).
This is actually a conservative estimate. Meaning we can actually do better.
Yet the countries assessed didn’t really consider food systems, and when they did, focused their NDCs largely on food production aspects and overlooked other areas and components.
Rarely included were demand-side measures to promote dietary changes and tackle food waste, as well as actions to reduce emissions from food processing, storage, and transportation.
None of the NDCs also account for emissions from food imports, particularly those linked to deforestation and the destruction of ecosystems. In the UK, for example, nearly half of its carbon footprint comes from overseas.
The majority of NDCs highlighted the importance of food systems’ resilience to deal with climate impacts, but only a few countries have advanced concrete targets, indicators, and measures. Vanuatu is one of them.
I know I’ve harped on about this before but this is still worth noting. Per capita consumption of animal products in high-income countries is staggering. In 2017, meat consumption in Bangladesh was 3.3 kilos per person but it was 98.6 kilos in the U.S..
The NDCs lack concrete efforts to redirect public resources away from carbon-intensive farming and toward more diverse and regenerative approaches. Germany is a notable exception.
Few of the assessed NDCs consulted food systems experts or involved Indigenous Peoples, women, smallholders, fishers, youth, and other poor and marginalised groups.
Fires, Cakes and Stoves
The title of this New Yorker piece from noted environmentalist and author Bill McKibbon has the shortest, most succinct advice for us - “In a word on fire, stop burning things”. In case you haven’t guessed, it’s about the intersection between the latest IPCC report and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
It is a powerful, passionate call to ditch fossil fuels. It’s a looonnngggg read but worth it.
“What unites these two crises is combustion. Burning fossil fuel has driven the temperature of the planet ever higher, melting most of the sea ice in the summer Arctic, bending the jet stream, and slowing the Gulf Stream. And selling fossil fuel has given Putin both the money to equip an army (oil and gas account for sixty per cent of Russia’s export earnings) and the power to intimidate Europe by threatening to turn off its supply.”
Speaking of cutting our dependence on fossil fuels, Melissa Clark, one of my favourite food writers and cookbook authors, wrote about induction stoves for NYT.
I’ve been ambivalent about induction stoves - I like it that they’re not messy but also enjoy “watching flames leap over the sides of a pan”, as Clark wrote of cooking with a gas stove.
But gas stoves are notoriously bad for the environment, with a recent study - admittedly small and looking at cooktops, ovens and broilers in 53 homes in California - found that even even when the devices are shut off, they emit methane, or CH₄, a GHG multiple times more potent than CO₂.
“Annual methane emissions from all gas stoves in U.S. homes have a climate impact comparable to the annual carbon dioxide emissions of 500,000 cars,” the authors wrote.
Solution? Induction stoves. According to Clark, who test-used them for two weeks, they are also great for cooking, allowing precise temperatures (so no burning or scorching) and easier to clean up.
Here’s another New Yorker piece worth reading this weekend. Written by Susan Orlean, it is about one of my favourite desserts in the whole world - tiramisú, which means ‘pick me up’, because of all the coffee and sugar in it (obviously).
Until I moved to Italy, I couldn’t understand what the fuss was all about. Most of the tiramisú I’ve had in most places were supremely sweet to the point of cloying. Also, I don’t drink coffee (blasphemy in a place like Rome!) and I’m not fussed about desserts. At least, I wasn’t until I moved here.
Anyway, Orlean’s short, enjoyable piece talks about its origins - Le Beccherie, a restaurat in Treviso, which introduced the dish in the early 70s - and attempts by a far-right politician to protect the much-loved dessert.
As always, have a great weekend! Please feel free to share this post and send tips and thoughts on twitter @thinink, to my LinkedIn page or via e-mail email@example.com.