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Food and sustainability

Sustainable diets can help us feed the planet and achieve the goals of cop21

On the eve of Earth day and the ratification of the agreement reached on 12 December at COP21 by signatory countries, the BCFN Foundation highlights the impact of our daily food choices and the importance of adopting sustainable diets in order to protect the well-being of both people and the planet.

In 2050, the world’s population will exceed 9 billion, leading to a 56% increase in food demand. With a rise in food production and subsequent environmental impact, it may well be difficult to limit global warming to 2˚C, which is the objective set last December at the Paris Conference (COP21). However, in order to feed more people, the solution is not simply to produce more. In fact, we are currently wasting a third of global food production, which is the equivalent of four times the quantity needed to feed 795 million malnourished people around the world. Waste also has a significant environmental impact since food releases methane when it rots; a greenhouse gas which is 20 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Consequently, adopting a sustainable diet according to the Food and Environment Double Pyramid model, which promotes the Mediterranean diet with benefits for human health and the environment, as well as tackling food waste to reduce it by 50% by 2020, a target set by the Milan Protocol, are now fundamental objectives to achieve.

Agriculture is Devouring the Planet
It is becoming increasingly necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions due to the use of fossil fuels, tropical deforestation and the intensification of agriculture. Indeed, tropical deforestation caused by the expansion of new agricultural land produces emissions equal to 3.6 billion tonnes of CO2 per year, but it is agricultural activity which is having an unprecedented effect on greenhouse gas emissions, producing an equivalent of around 6.2 billion tons of CO2, making it the third biggest culprit for greenhouse gas emissions, behind only the energy and transport sectors. As highlighted by WWF Italia, agriculture is the activity which occupies the largest area of the planet’s land surface: indeed, almost 40% of the total surface is set aside for agriculture and animal husbandry, using 70% of the world’s fresh water to irrigate cultivated fields, also making it the biggest cause of biodiversity loss.

According to Paolo Barilla, Vice President of the BCFN Foundation, “the significant benefit of the World Expo in Milan and COP21 was that they focused the attention of the media and public opinion on the main issues connecting food, people and the planet. However, while Expo 2015 did not fully explore the paradoxes in the food system, the Paris Conference did not discuss its impact on climate change, especially in light of the Sustainable Development Goals. The high environmental impact is caused by what we eat, we are literally devouring our own planet. And yet, during the COP21 there was very little discussion about sustainable diets. Food needs to be placed at the heart of all stakeholders’ programmes: from the scientific community to business, from institutions to individuals, everybody can and must play a pivotal role. This is what we are trying to do with the work of the BCFN Foundation, providing information to enable people to make informed decisions about the food they eat”.

Soil Protection and Sustainable Agriculture
Issues related to food cannot be separated from those regarding sustainable agriculture. With this in mind, the first problem to tackle is the protection of the soil. According to the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation), 25% of the planet’s soils are seriously damaged and only 10% show some sign of improvement. Over the last 40 years, 30% of the world’s agricultural land has become unproductive. If we focus on Europe, one of the continents where land is used in an extremely intensive way, between residential areas, production systems (including agricultural and forestry systems) and infrastructure, 80% of the land available has been used up. And yet, at the same time, sustainable and urban agriculture are being promoted as feasible ways of mitigating the effects of climate change, reducing illnesses linked to food and their related costs, as well as making cities better places to live.

An example of an integrated approach which takes into account the various challenges regarding food security and climate change is known as ‘Climate Smart Agriculture’. This strives to improve economic sustainability by supporting the development of economic revenue for the agricultural and social sectors, strengthening the resilience of the food system faced with climate and environmental change and reducing or eliminating greenhouse gas emissions.


Fighting Food Waste 
If food waste were represented by a single country, it would be the world’s third biggest producer of carbon dioxide, after the USA and China. Data from 2012 shows that Italy wastes 35% of fresh products (dairy products, meat, fish), 19% of bread and 16% of fruit and vegetables produced, amounting to a wastage of 1,226 million m3 of water per year; the equivalent of 2.5% of the entire yearly flow of the river Po, producing emissions of 24.5 million tons of CO2 into the environment every year.
However, food waste is not just produce which is unused at the end of the food supply chain, during distribution, sale and consumption, but also food which is lost during the agricultural production stage, after the harvest and in the food processing stage. Waste and loss is greatly influenced by the specific local conditions in different countries. Food wasted by consumers equates to between 95kg and 115kg on average per person per year in Europe and North America while consumers in sub-Saharan Africa, South and South-East Asia throw away between only 6kg and 11kg of food per year. In developing countries, 40% of food waste occurs after the harvest or during processing, while in industrialised countries over 40% takes place during the stages of retail and consumption. Nevertheless, overall, industrialised and developing countries tend to waste around the same quantity of food; 670 and 630 million tonnes respectively.
In order to reduce food waste and target European legislation on the issue, a petition has recently been posted on the platform Change.org, proposed by Daniele Messina. Inspired by the Milan Protocol launched by BCFN, this petition has already collected over 750,000 signatures: a practical example of how each one of us can actively participate in fostering change.
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