Adding Food into the Climate Equation: A Post-COP21 Agenda


Peoples' Climate March helped make COP21 climate talks happen.

Earth Day 2016 has special significance as signing day for the United Nations' COP21 Paris Climate Agreement, a landmark in the collective effort to fight climate change. While greenhouse gas emissions from energy production are crucial and rightly the major focus in the agreement, the fact that food and agriculture's large role in climate change was not addressed is a glaring weakness.

The food we eat generates an enormous amount of greenhouse gases. All told, agriculture, forestry and land use changes contribute an estimated 24 percent of global emissions.Of that, livestock production alone contributes 14.5 percent. If humanity is to keep worldwide temperatures under the 2°C increase that scientists say is needed to avoid potentially catastrophic climate change, then reducing the amount of greenhouse gases it takes to grow and process our food is critical. Not only does moving towards climate-smart food system emit less and store more greenhouse gases, but it also has the possibility to make farming more resilient in the face of heat waves, drought and deluge, along with damaging extreme weather expected with climate change. This important chain of farm-to-fork-to-finish includes the entire life cycle of food, and thus includes a role for everyone from producers to processors to consumers.

As world leaders converge on New York City to sign the UN's COP21 agreement, here are some food and farming proposals we'd add to the final document in the battle against climate change:

Carbon Farming

If done right, farming has the potential to absorb more greenhouse gases than it emits by using regenerative agriculture techniques. This type of farming builds sustainability into production practices without simply going for ever-higher yields. Agroecology and permaculture are two ecosystem-oriented methods that encourage carbon farming, but all kinds of farms can include elements like increased composting, conservation tillage,  cover cropping and the promotion of biodiversity to greatly improve carbon storage. Soils are a big part of that greater strategy.

Improving Soils for Carbon Sequestration

To combat climate change in agriculture, it's all about the soil. As the grounds for plant and animal growth, soils also store an immense amount of carbon - about three times that stored in the atmosphere - and they have the ability to stockpile, or sequester, much more. Though it will take a comprehensive effort from all kinds of farmers and land managers, there are many ways to create healthier soils that suck up carbon. Strategies used in carbon farming can be added to carbon-storing methods like planting crops with deep roots to boost beneficial microbes that capture carbon, using charcoal composting and adopting no-till farming practices to improve soil health. To spur these methods, scientists have recently called for cross-sector collaboration, governmental rules and soil carbon-trading schemes to make it feasible.

Targeted Fertilizer Use

When it comes to nitrogen-based fertilizers, there can be too much of a good thing. While synthetic fertilizers have helped increase crop yields around the world, over-application has turned excessive amounts of reactive nitrogen into nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas. (Too much nitrogen causes many other pollution problems like algal blooms and dead zones in our waters.) By reducing fertilizer use and finding the right amount for each crop, the nitrous oxide emissions can drop 20 to 50 percent and not hurt yields.

Taking a Bite Out of Food Waste

In the United States, an astonishing 40 percent of all food is wasted, with much of it going out with the garbage and into the landfill where it gives off methane, the powerful greenhouse gas. Because food and organic waste is the second biggest component of US landfills, there is a huge amount of work that can be done to curtail it. First, everyone from farmers to foodies can find ways to reduce food waste and to keep food from going to the landfill. And when food is wasted, it can have a second life as an energy resource that's diverted into anaerobic digesters that convert the methane into electricity. Food doesn't have to rot in vain.

Going Meatless on Mondays

Try Meatless Monday. Regardless of the day, Meatless Monday has shown that people who eat the standard Western diet consume too much meat for their health and the health of the planet. By cutting out meat and eating more vegetables once a week you can avoid the big carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide emissions that go with it. And as Dr. Roni Neff from Johns Hopkins University found when she attended COP21, the climate community gives short shrift to meat reduction even though it can have a profound impact on the fight against climate change.

Better Livestock Management

Since animal agriculture emits 14.5 percent of all greenhouse gases, particularly as methane from cattle and manure from all livestock, changes in production can go a long way towards lowering its climate impact. Improvements in how animals are fed, treated and handled can help. For instance, problem emissions arise from enormous manure lagoons situated on large dairy cow or meat cattle factory farms. On the other hand, manure from well managed pastured cattle does not emit as much methane because it's processed into the soil and even has the potential to store more carbon in managed rotational grazing. We are just the beginning of figuring out how to produce meat with a lower emissions footprint, but humans must tackle meat production if we are to avoid serious climate change impacts.