Food and sustainability

Global warming? It’s not just a question of energy

Riccardo Valentini – Professor of Forestry Ecology at the University of Tuscia, Director of the IPCC and member of the BCFN advisory board – presented the new edition of Eating Planet in Rome on the day of the signing of the COP 21, the international climate agreement. Here, he explains why issues related to energy are not the only problem to tackle in order to avoid the disasters which climate change could cause.

We are the polar bears now”. This phrase clearly expresses the message of the latest IPCC report (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – 5th report). The effects are becoming apparent in various regions around the world and it is time for us to tackle climate change in our everyday life, like polar bears holding on to our melting fragments of ice.

Food consumption and agricultural production
Projections show that temperatures are set to rise throughout Europe: there will be a marked increase in precipitation in northern Europe, a significant reduction in southern Europe and a rise in heatwaves, periods of drought and extreme rainfall.
The risk of flooding will increase, as will the loss of human life, coastal erosion and damage to infrastructure.   The risk already exists at the current level of climate change (+0.61 °C compared to the pre-industrial period) and will gradually increase until it becomes high with an increase over 2°C and very high if it climbs above 4°C.
All of this has led to a rise in the prices of agricultural goods and every year signs of vulnerability and unpredictable market behaviour can be seen following climatic anomalies in various parts of the world.
Future scenarios based on current trends of the rise in greenhouse gases indicate a reduction in global agricultural production of around 8% by 2050, while the demand for food is set to increase by 56%. The combination of climate change and the increasing population will expose around 2.5 billion people, out of an estimated global population of 9.3 billion, to food scarcity.
If eating habits change, or traditionally vegetarian populations move towards a diet rich in fats and animal proteins (as is often the case when incomes grow) the number of people at risk of malnutrition due to food scarcity would grow to around 4.7 billion.
With this in mind, it is obvious why we need to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases caused by fossil fuels, but a similar focus also needs to be placed on greenhouse gas emissions caused by the destruction of rainforests and the intensification of agricultural practices.
Tropical deforestation, increasingly linked to the expansion of new agricultural land, produces emissions of around 3.6 billion tonnes of CO2 per year, to which we can add the 6.2 billion tonnes of CO2 due to agriculture.
An increasing number of voices are now advising us to stop and reflect on the future of the global agro-food system, and above all, to ask whether the current race for food is sustainable or whether there is a more efficient way of using our natural resources.

The three great paradoxes
If we look at the global food system, it is clear that there are currently three main paradoxes within it: despite the extremely high number of people who do not have access to food, a third of food production around the world goes towards feeding animals and a growing proportion of agricultural land is used to produce biofuels for powering cars. And although millions of people around the world are suffering from hunger or malnutrition, over two billion are suffering the consequences of overeating, with an increased risk of diabetes, tumours and cardiovascular diseases. Finally, every year, a third of the food produced around the world is wasted – a quantity which would be sufficient to feed almost a billion people suffering from hunger or malnutrition.
The obvious question then arises: do we really need to increase food production? Should our efforts not be concentrated on making the entire food supply chain more efficient and sustainable, from production to processing and consumption, including people’s eating habits?

A Call to Action
This is an urgent call to action for all stakeholders in the agro-food chain, from consumers to agricultural companies.
Indeed, we are faced with a challenge on a global scale which puts two large systems head-to-head: on one hand, intensive farming, which causes pollution and, due to its inefficiency, requires huge expanses of land, especially in emerging economies, and on the other hand, an agro-industrial model which combines efficient production, higher sustainability and reduced quantities of energy, with special attention paid to quality, health and safety.
I strongly believe that Europe - the biggest exporter of products from the agro-food industry - must offer the world, and especially emerging countries, its own model of ‘smart agriculture’. It is a case of rediscovering innovation, above all in terms of cultivation techniques and food processing, which in past centuries formed the bedrock of farming culture in Italy and throughout Europe.
The lack of careful and widespread food processing which respects people’s cultural traditions is currently the main reason for around 40% of food waste between production in the field and distribution on the markets in developing countries.

The Power of Knowledge
The Double Food Pyramid model, created by the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition Foundation, is an extremely effective way of showing what we have already discussed: eating well can be good for your health and the environment. There are two pyramids, one of which is upside down. The first is the health pyramid, with the “healthiest” foods (fruit and vegetables) at the base of the pyramid and the most damaging at the top (red meat and cheeses). The upside down pyramid places the foods with the lowest environmental impact at the top and those with the greatest impact at the bottom. This is a very simple way of immediately finding links between healthy foods and those which have the smallest environmental impact.
Environmental impact studies on food are still relatively new and are based on the application of three ecological indicators: greenhouse gas emissions associated with food production (carbon footprint), the water required to produce it (water footprint) and its ecological footprint. The ecological footprint is a parameter which provides a concise indication of the land needed to compensate for the environmental effects of a given production, calculated in square metres of land. For instance, the consumption of 1 kg of beef requires 110 m2 of land. The educational version of the double pyramid uses the ecological footprint as the indicator of environmental impact.
Knowing the impact of food on the environment and our health is essential in order to build the foundations for a new model of sustainable development.

Riccardo Valentini (University of Tuscia)
Links attached

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