How the Food Industry Can Help Reverse Climate Change

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Author: Katy Askew | Published: July 25, 2017 

According to the latest data from the US’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOOA), average global temperatures in March were 1.05°C higher than when records began in 1880. Scientific consensus – which is reflected in the Paris Climate Accord – places the ‘point of no return’, when global warming reaches dangerous levels, at 2°C. 

The climate clock is ticking.

Estimates vary as to how long we have left to stabilise warming below this level. The Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC) calculates this time based on the premise that we can emit a maximum of 760 gigatons of CO2 into the atmosphere between now and 2100. At present, we are emitting 40 gigatons of CO2 each year. That’s 1,268 tons per second. At current rates, we have a little over 18 years before our carbon budget is spent, the MCC says. 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggests if humans carry on with a “business as usual” approach, the Earth’s average temperature will rise by between 2.6°C and 4.8°C above pre-industrial levels by 2100.

For some climate scientists, however, this estimate could be optimistic. A 2016 paper published in Scientific Advances, under lead author Tobias Friedrich of the of the University of Hawaii, argues temperature rises due to greenhouse gas emissions are “strongly dependent on the climate background state”, with “significantly larger values attained during warm phases”. 

In other words, the hotter it gets, the quicker the temperature is likely to rise. According to this paradigm, at current emission levels, the average global temperature could rise by between 4.78°C and 7.36°C by 2100. 

The food industry is particularly vulnerable to climate change. As the World Food Programme and Met Office food insecurity map shows, areas in Africa, the Middle East and Asia are already vulnerable to food insecurity and global warming brought about by rising emissions that are set to deepen the problems faced in these regions. 

“Changes in climatic conditions have already affected the production of some staple crops, and future climate change threatens to exacerbate this. Higher temperatures will have an impact on yields while changes in rainfall could affect both crop quality and quantity,” the WFP warns. 

The integrated global nature of the food industry supply chain – which is reliant on crops such as cocoa and coffee, as well as coconut and palm oil, that are internationally sourced – mean large-scale food manufacturers in Europe and North America, where the WFP says food insecurity is negligible, are far from immune to the negative consequences of global warming.

The food industry and Scope 3 emissions

The food industry is also one of the largest carbon emitters. For instance, if both direct and indirect emissions are taken into account, over 30% of the European Union’s greenhouse gas emissions come from the food and drink sector, environmental campaign group Friends of the Earth notes. 

Andrew Nobrega, the North American investment director at France-based PUR Projet, which looks to help companies regenerate and protect ecosystems, that the food sector is already taking action to address emissions, from investments in renewables to carbon offsetting. 

Speaking during a Climate Collaborative event in May, Nobrega notes: “Many organisations attempt to both value and address Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions within their supply chain.” These emissions include those directly from production, such as efforts to lower energy use, and indirect emissions such as transportation. “There is an opportunity to look a little bit further and look at Scope 3 emissions,” Nobrega says. 

Scope 3 emissions include those produced by raw material processing and production and, Nobrega says, these account for 40-50% of a product’s total emissions. 

PUR Projet specialises in providing supply chain management for corporations that reflect “positive carbon actions and the need to cut deforestation in commodity sourcing” and it operates projects in Latin America and other tropical forested regions.  

To address Scope 3 emissions directly, investment can be targeted at the farm level to promote ecosystems and biodiversity, stabilise yields, reduce costs for the farmers and provide alternative income opportunities and help to adapt to climate change and reduce pressure on their systems, Nobrega suggests. Ecosystem restoration can be achieved through agroforestry practices, such as insetting trees, rotating crop cycles and utilising non-chemical fertilisation methods. 

“We are taking a unit of climate mitigation and we are seeking to address climate smart agriculture and the regeneration of forests in some cases but also decreasing deforestation in the first place,” Nobrega explains. 

“Agroforestry itself is a carbon sequestration measure… and by the provision of sustainable timber and mitigating loss of yields you actually reduce the need for these farmers to go further into existing forested lands to degrade either for more agricultural land, illegal timber harvesting or something of that nature. So you are both engaging climate action on the parcel level and reducing the need for degradation outside of the parcel.”

Preventing deforestation has been flagged as a priority by global chocolate giants, companies reliant on cocoa. Earlier this year, companies including Nestle, Mondelez International, Hershey, Ferrero and Mars announced plans to work together to “end deforestation and forest degradation in the global cocoa supply chain”.  

The joint initiative, which also has the backing of NGOs and other stakeholders, will move to “develop and present a joint public-private framework of action to address deforestation” at the COP 23 UN climate change talks in Bonn in November. It will initially focus on Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, the world’s leading producers of cocoa, where the farming of the commodity is a driving force behind rapid rates of deforestation.

Regenerative agriculture

While addressing deforestation helps to cut Scope 3 emissions for some products, climate smart agriculture can also help to take carbon from the atmosphere and put it back in the ground through photosynthesis. 

For this to work, you have to start with healthy soil, Tim LaSalle of California State University and Chico State, told an event focused on climate change running alongside the Natural Products Expo West food industry trade show in California earlier this year. 


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