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Revolutionising the food system: How farming can be the climate villain or the saviour

Hi there! Welcome to the second post in our six-part series on “Revolutionising the food system”. As part of Tend’s mission to reconnect with our food, we hope these articles provide you with insight and understanding of the implications of our current food system. In parts 1, 2, 3 and 4, we’ll be discussing the health, climate, ecological and ethical impacts. In part 5, we’ll share what we believe a sustainable food system looks like, before talking about the benefits of that system in part 6. Together, we can revolutionise how we feed ourselves and our planet.

The current industrialised food system is contributing to climate change. Our industrialised food system prioritises profit and production over quality and sustainability. It treats food much like any other commodity that’s made in a factory. That’s why we see farming practices heavily dependent on unnatural processes, such as the addition of various chemicals, mechanisation of land management and livestock rearing inside concrete walls. The scale and efficiency of these methods help to reduce the cost of our foods. But there are externalised costs, such as the damage to the environment and the deterioration of our health.


The impact of farming on climate change

According to the UK Parliament’s Climate change and Agriculture POSTnote, the agricultural sector currently contributes to 12% of global GHGs. [i] If other industries, such as the energy sector, continue to decline their impact at current rates, by 2050, agriculture will become the second-largest GHG emitter. [ii] The exact values of the effects of agriculture on climate change may vary between sources, but one thing is for sure, our food has the potential to cause or combat climate change depending on the path we take.

Land mismanagement

The topsoil of our agricultural lands contains huge amounts of carbon. Known as Soil Organic Carbon (SOC), soil is a huge potential sink or source of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere depending on how it is managed. One third of the rise in the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere since 1850 is due to SOC loss due to land use change and mismanagement. [iii]

Intensive farming methods such as ploughing and tilling (breaking up the soil) destroys the integrity of topsoil and release CO2 into the atmosphere. A healthy soil that contains sufficient soil pores for air can act as a valuable carbon sink. But current agricultural practices view the pre-existing natural soil systems as a burden on their commercial aims. It tries to remove them by creating a blank canvas upon which farmers add external inputs. The first step of this process involves excessive/wrongly timed/wet soil tilling to clear the land after each harvest. This has already caused a 25% degradation of soil worldwide whilst simultaneously and releasing large amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. The irony of this is that the chemicals that are added back into the soil would have already been there if it hadn’t been disrupted. Undisrupted soils are healthy and biodiverse soils that lead to carbon sequestration as well as better food.

Clearing of land for commodity crops such as soybeans and palm oils is responsible for 1/3 of all human CO2 emissions. This occurs predominantly in countries such as the United States and Brazil. Cutting down trees not only releases the CO2 stored in them but also dramatically reduces the future carbon absorption potential. What’s worse is that most of these crops (e.g. 80% of global soy production [iv]) are used to feed livestock, while the rest is often used to create highly processed, calorie-rich but nutrient-deficient foods.

Impact of chemicals

The manufacturing of artificial fertiliser, and other chemicals such as pesticides, uses an enormous amount of electricity. For crops to grow effectively, nitrogen is essential. Naturally, plants acquire this through bacterial nitrogen fixation (e.g. bacteria in the roots of legume plants convert nitrogen in the air into ammonia and other nitrogen compounds). However, modern agriculture has resorted to applying copious amounts of synthetic nitrogen fertilisers. The Haber-Bosch process used to make them is fossil-fuel intensive and contributes significantly to CO2 emissions. Given that just the three largest fertiliser manufacturers alone produce 20 million metric tons each year, the repercussions on our planet is immense.

On top of this, nitrogen fertiliser turns into nitrous oxide, a far more potent greenhouse gas. On top of the damage from nitrogen fertiliser production, these chemicals cause more problems after application. The microorganisms in the soil convert nitrogen into nitrous oxide, which accumulates in soils. After processes such as tilling, they’re released into the atmosphere. Since nitrous oxide has the potential to trap 300 times more heat than carbon dioxide, it severely intensifies global warming. [v] 

Food transportation and waste

Food miles are complex and often misunderstood. Depending on the mode of transport, they can have little impact on the CO2 emissions of a food, or they can dramatically increase them. The issue is whether the food is airfreighted or not. Driving or shipping food is relatively efficient and is much better than trying to grow the wrong food for the local micro-climate to satisfy a need for hyper-local food. However, airfreighting fresh, perishable food across the globe to satisfy our demands for out of season or exotic food is incredibly damaging and generates 50 times more CO2 than shipping (although shipping long distances has its own issues with packaging requirements and picking fruit when it is unripe so it doesn’t spoil on the long journey).

Anaerobic digestion of food waste in landfills contributes to large-scale methane production. Globally, 1/3 of our food goes to waste (growing all this would take approximately the entire landmass of China!). [vi] Not only is this a colossal waste of resources, themselves GHG-emitting, but much of the food waste goes to landfill where it undergoes anaerobic decomposition. This process generates methane; an extremely potent GHG. Dr Mark Hyman, the author of Food Fix, claims that that ‘if food waste were a country, it would be the third-largest emitter of GHGs after the US and China’. [vii] In the developed world, much of this waste is due to perfectly edible food not meeting our cosmetic standards and never making it to our fridges.

Livestock farming

Industrial factory farming of animals further exacerbates global warming. Clearing land to grow animal feed results in deforestation, animal waste mismanagement and manure runoff releases methane and pollutes water, and methane is released from the digestion process in the animals.

However, it’s also important to remember that “it’s not the cow, it’s the how”. Raising grass- or pasture-fed livestock can help to sequester carbon as their manure acts as a natural fertiliser, helping plants grow long roots and increasing Soil Organic Carbon. In addition, high quality, natural feed is easier for the animals to digest and reduces methane production. Plus, their waste is properly managed and able to break down aerobically, reducing methane release. Some studies even show that raising cattle in a regenerative way can be carbon-negative. [viii] Livestock are an essential part of a functioning ecosystem and, when managed correctly, are an environmentally-friendly source of highly nutritious food.

The same applies to crops too. The destructive practice of industrial agriculture is what’s producing GHGs and contributing to climate change. Switching to regenerative methods will reverse this trend without sacrificing the ability to feed the planetvii. It’s about how we’re producing, more than what we’re producing. For example, even if a farm is providing the same product, there can be a 12-fold difference in GHG emissions intensity depending on the methods employed. [ix]

 

Conclusion

The centralised, industrialised food system is destroying our planet. The mismanagement of our soils, use of artificial chemicals, airfreighting food and industrial livestock farming, have been a large cause of climate change. However, agriculture also represents hope. By increasing SOC, we can sequester carbon in the soil. By growing organically and regeneratively, we can reduce our reliance on energy-intensive chemicals. By buying seasonal food that’s not airfreighted to us, we can reduce the impact of food transport.

Tend is focused on revolutionising how we feed ourselves and our planet; making our food system more environmentally friendly, as well as healthier and more ethical. We work with small-scale, sustainable farmers that work in harmony with nature, not against it. The regenerative practices they use will restore soil health while promoting ecological processes that remove the need for artificial inputs. The farms we work with share our passion for using agriculture as a force for environmental good. With Tend you know how your food has been grown and the positive impact this has on the environment.


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