Note: This analysis of the UN IPCC’s Climate Change and Land report consists mostly of my personal views and do not, in any way, represent those of any company or organization I am associated with.
“Mother Nature is just chemistry, biology and physics. Everything she does is just the sum of those three things. She’s completely amoral. She doesn’t care about poetry or art or whether you go to church. You can’t negotiate with her, and you can’t spin her and you can’t evade her rules. All you can do is fit in as a species. And when a species doesn’t learn to fit in with Mother Nature, it gets kicked out. ”— Rob Watson
Early this year, I was afforded the privilege of moderating a forum on excess food. The purpose of the dialogue was to forge partnerships among leaders in business and church groups and to create a mechanism that minimizes food waste: edible surplus food from hotels and restaurants will be donated directly to church communities.
I have engaged in multiple meetings with the interested parties since, and the interactions have been meaningful. One of those is a memorable meeting with a strong advocate of single-use plastic reduction. She urged me to pursue the management of food waste because lesser food dumped in landfills would mean lower emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas (GHG), while hungry people get fed. It was a win-win proposition I could not ignore.
Another one is a random message from a foreigner who has been touched by a serious health hazard associated with excess food she found on the Internet. Her email landed in my inbox out of nowhere. She had no idea what I was up to, and have only expressed a genuine desire to help. I gave her a short brief about my excess food initiative, and after a few exchanges, a meeting has been set.
I took this odd series of signs as a trigger to think some more about climate change with respect to food.
This month, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released a summary of their comprehensive report Climate Change and Land.* It covers climate change, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas emissions, among others. I read all 43 pages of that summary to substantiate this article and also out of personal curiosity: How does our food attitude impact climate change?
Allow me to simplify the UN findings, mainly for the purpose of improving my modest understanding:
We are producing and consuming more meat.
The UN reports that “data available since 1961 shows the per capita supply of vegetable oils and meat has more than doubled.” In a research conducted by Sans and Combris, it was found that “animal-based protein consumption has surged worldwide over the last 50 years, rising from 61g per person per day in 1961 to 80g per person per day in 2011.” While citizens of developing nations with less carnivorous food preferences are free to question this, their inquiry would not diminish the global average.
Unless there exist strict universal measures to forestall the growth of a large carnivorous population, we should expect these numbers to grow as the global population increases. The current world population is at 7.7 billion. This is expected to hit 9.7 billion by 2050.
How did we end up eating that much meat?
In Sapiens, author Yuval Noah Harari explains that the Agricultural Revolution around 10,000 years ago “enlarged the sum total of food at the disposal of humankind.” This was the dawn of modern farming and cattle-breeding techniques that we know of today. But that phenomenon was preceded by 2.5 million years of humans feeding themselves by hunting animals and gathering plants, which were easier than growing wheat and taming sheep. Harari explains:
“When a foraging band was hard-pressed by a stronger rival, it could easily move on. It was difficult and dangerous, but it was feasible. When a strong enemy threatened an agricultural village, retreat meant giving up fields, houses, and granaries.”
So human bodies were originally programmed to eat only that which it can hunt and gather. We can live on plants for long stretches when no wild game is in sight. We do not have to eat a ton of meat to survive! Is it possible to go back to our hunter-gatherer roots today?
We are eating more.
This is not surprising at all. Just by looking at sales promotions, whether in supermarkets or restaurants, we simply purchase more than what we consume. I grapple with this every time I set foot in a warehouse club like Costco, where I always end up buying things I do not need. Why buy just one cauliflower head when you can have 5 for the price of one? And that’s the healthier stuff. Retail experts have learned to exploit certain nudges, such as curating aisles in ways that would make a giant tub of Hershey’s chocolates as you approach the cash register irresistible. Invisible tactics of this kind have influenced our choices, which could have disastrous effects in the long run.
Even portion sizes today are gargantuan, though that was not the case before. Xennial Asians, like yours truly, grew up loving the McDonald’s Happy Meal as a special treat, and the servings were modest. On ordinary days, I would still consume rice, meat, and vegetables. But when Supersize Me became a trend circa the 2000s, international franchises of global brands such as McDonald’s and Wendy’s were not left behind. I remember when Wendy’s Biggie and Salad Bar became a sensation — my family and I would line up for that. I used to marvel at the macaroni mounds topped with thousand island dressing that other people would carefully construct, but never really fully consume. I did not know it at the time, but it was a symbol of excess we would end up trying to turn around now.
We are fatter, while many people are still hungry.
What followed, as I grew older, was a bombardment of “value meals” that, quite frankly, were helpful during my penny-pinching college years. They are more affordable than some authentic local dishes that use expensive ingredients and take hours to prepare. How could one resist the allure of quick and cheap eats in a state of poverty? But after years of temporary pleasure, I now have a much slower metabolism, heavier weight and an uncertain number of free radicals circulating in my body. With many others like me who suffer the same, it is not surprising that the global estimate in health care costs for excess weight and obesity is at $2 trillion.
The irony is, I live in the Philippines, which ranks high in undernourishment. The UN estimates that there are 821 million people worldwide who are still undernourished. I can afford to eat nutritious comfort food to correct my quick-and-cheap eating habits, but what about those who are unable to? Some of them are forced to resort to eating the spoils: processed food if they are lucky, leftover food scraped from landfills if they are not. Lacking options, they end up at a higher risk of disease from hunger and food contamination.
Despite the existence of hunger, we are wasting our food.
“Currently, 25–30% of the total food produced is lost or wasted,” which for me is unconscionable. I understand that an imperfect global food supply chain has yielded benefits that have far outweighed the costs. Otherwise, we would not be living longer the way we do today. But perhaps value chains within hotels and restaurants can be reviewed more rigorously and periodically, to check for sustainability and to see how best to use resources without further endangering the environment. Or is a global food supply chain reset necessary?
The food that we are wasting was produced through agriculture, which is warming the planet.
Another compelling reason why we should try to prevent wasting our food is due to the high cost of its production. The fact that every cow or livestock that we consume produces methane, or trees had to be torn down for farming purposes, should remind us to be more conscientious in our attempts to feed growing populations. There is money to be made, but there are also costs to be paid, especially if we undermine the impact of unsustainable food production processes, and the amount of waste they entail, on our future.
Who pays for these costs? We do, through taxpayer’s money spent on environmental cleanups. “GHG emissions from agricultural land expansion contributing to the global food system represent 16–27% of total anthropogenic emissions. These are projected to increase, driven by population and income growth and changes in consumption patterns.” This could mean higher taxes, which would feel less burdensome if only they were spent on creating new walking/biking trails or easing traffic congestion.
The warming of the planet is making agriculture difficult.
“Climate change, including increases in frequency and intensity of extremes, has adversely impacted food security and terrestrial ecosystems as well as contributed to desertification and land degradation in many regions.”
While the effects of climate change are felt by everyone on this planet, island nations such as the Philippines, Indonesia, and the Maldives are bearing the brunt of weather extremes. Resort towns are wiped out by catastrophic typhoons in one fell swoop. Farmers about to harvest their crops suddenly lose the income supposed to tide them over for several more months. In the aftermath, which rarely makes the primetime news, survivors confront intergenerational poverty, where families unwittingly pass on their sufferings to their kin. Their struggle to overcome one calamity after another, with very short reprieves in between, forces them to stay poor. All these despite their much smaller carbon footprint vis-a-vis those of much larger industrialized economies such as China and the US.
In rural coastal areas, which are most vulnerable to natural calamities, fishing has become an alternative source of livelihood. But as the UN report explains, this too is in peril due to rising sea levels that cause flooding and coastal erosion.
To cope, we resort to trade, by importing rice and other agricultural produce. It has helped stave off hunger in the near-term, but imported products also make it difficult for local farmers to compete, compromising the overall sustainability of the industry. Our inability to grow our own food puts us at the mercy of exporters and traders that also serve other markets.
People will be forced to move to places where food is more abundant.
So what happens if global trade somehow fails to meet food demand? It could increase the possibility of more people crossing borders. According to the New York Times, “food shortages are likely to affect poorer parts of the world far more than richer ones. This could increase the flow of immigration that is already redefining politics in North America, Europe and other parts of the world.” Clearly not a readily available option for island states isolated by water, but there are many ways to move.
What if uprooting oneself and risking it all in another country is out of the question? One can expect price hikes for scarce food items. If the price of food staples such as rice or maize goes up, this could lead to riots. Why? Because hunger is a violation of a fundamental human right to an “adequate standard of living.” No one can tolerate hunger for so long.
Government policies that seek to address food insecurity may focus more on diversifying commodity crops (where possible), focus less on crops that contribute to the rising concentration of methane (i.e. rice cultivation — not easy to do in Asia) and leverage on local farming practices. In fact, the UN recommends a back-to-basics approach that involves local stakeholders in the planning and implementation, which could revive indigenous agricultural methods. But food security has political repercussions, and where politics and governments have a major role to play, not all the stakeholders involved will have a say.
Climate change is a serious issue with multiple moving parts, and I am under no illusion that it can be solved within my lifetime. But there seem to be low hanging fruits that could help make life before the apocalypse more tolerable.
There is a lot of potential in focusing our individual efforts towards food consumption changes. I have been practicing intermittent fasting for almost a year now, and I feel the physical and mental health benefits every day. In the process, it helps minimize my meat and overall food intake since I only eat once or twice a day within my 6-hr feeding window. So I save money, get healthy, and help lower my negative impact on the environment. I urge you to try it, though it is not for everyone.
As individual climate change warriors, we can also help minimize food waste, on our own or by supporting existing initiatives. There are many best practices around the world, and some of them make good business sense:
Again, my focus here was to think on how to make living with worsening heat, the hunger amidst the excess and a growing population more tolerable. I am but one of many concerned citizens who have yet to experience the worst effects of a changing climate, and it helps to think facts through. I could only think of a few solutions (though this quiz helps) so if you have more ideas, please feel free to share them.
I hope you found this article and the corresponding links useful.
*Italicized text are direct quotes from the UN IPCC report.