One-third of the greenhouse gases responsible for climate change are the direct result of food production

Sylvain CharleboisCOP28, the global climate change summit organized by the United Nations, will dedicate Dec. 10 to discussing food and water, a decision driven by a compelling rationale. The food industry and agriculture collectively contribute to a staggering 31 percent of human-made greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions on our planet, encompassing everything from farming practices to food waste.

Essentially, one-third of the greenhouse gases responsible for escalating global temperatures result directly from food production. Given the substantial impact of the food industry on emissions, it is not surprising that COP28 has chosen to prioritize this sector.

The summit, which opened on Nov. 30 in Dubai, saw 134 countries rallying behind a declaration on food during its opening weekend. This united effort represents a staggering 5.8 billion people and encompasses over 75 percent of the total emissions generated by worldwide food production and consumption. Importantly, this coalition comprises influential nations such as the United States, China, the European Union, and Canada.

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Climate advocacy organizations are urging the assembled global governments to make an unwavering commitment to reduce emissions from the global food sector. The conference host has pledged to prioritize discussions on agriculture.

The declaration itself outlines a comprehensive strategy for tackling climate change in agriculture and food systems, laying the groundwork for future COP conferences. It highlights the crucial role of inclusive engagement at the national level in integrating these systems into various strategies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Furthermore, it calls for a re-evaluation of agricultural and food policies to support activities that enhance multiple facets, including reducing greenhouse gases, bolstering resilience, and fostering sustainability. The declaration also underscores the need for increased financial support from various agri-food sectors to adapt and transform these systems. It also promotes science-based innovations and local knowledge to improve productivity and resilience. Lastly, it stresses the importance of a fair and transparent multilateral trading system, anchored by the World Trade Organization, in addressing these global challenges.

These goals are certainly ambitious but have been carefully thought out for the benefit of our planet. Canada’s support for this declaration should not be viewed as excessively controversial. Nevertheless, controversial situations can arise when interest groups selectively interpret these declarations to advance a particular narrative against animal-based protein. Conversations about the connection between food and climate frequently centre on the debate about whether humans should reduce their consumption of meat and dairy products.

Canada faces a significant challenge in this regard. When it comes to beef production alone, Canada holds the 11th position globally, with approximately 60,000 beef farms and feedlots, contributing a significant $21.8 billion to the country’s gross domestic product at market prices. Canada also ranks as the sixth largest global pork producer, and government-approved quotas supporting animal protein production, including chicken, turkey, eggs, and dairy, exceed $30 billion. Supply-managed sectors account for nearly 20 percent of all cash receipts in the country. It is undeniable that Canada has a lot at stake, and prioritizing the decarbonization of our food economy is imperative in the years ahead.

Adding to the pressure on our livestock industry is the Global Methane Pledge, introduced at COP26 two years ago. This pledge commits countries to reduce their methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030, and it was recently renewed in Dubai. Methane is approximately 20 times more effective, over 100 years, at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Food systems are responsible for a staggering 53 percent of global methane emissions, with around two-thirds originating from livestock production, including sources like cow burps and manure management. This underscores the need for adopting biodigesters and improved manure management practices in affluent countries, as well as enhancing animal feed for more environmentally friendly digestion in the rest of the world.

That said, while Canadians are willing to support climate initiatives, it should not come at the expense of the cultural and traditional importance of food. Employing rhetoric such as “planet-warming food,” as employed by anti-meat advocates, is borderline disrespectful. Encouraging consumers to consume less meat for the sake of the planet may not be well-received, especially when over 91 percent of Canadians regularly include animal proteins in their diets.

Governments should prioritize encouraging the food industry to embrace greener practices rather than relying solely on punitive measures – such as taxes – to induce change. Taxes can lead to inflationary effects, even if they are later eliminated, especially in the realm of food. Most importantly, the negative connotations linked to taxation can discourage individuals from taking on the role of responsible environmental stewards.

Ottawa is learning this lesson firsthand with the carbon tax debacle.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

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