Akila Wijerathna believes the right food choices will help limit GHG emissions

The environment and climate are interwoven with agriculture. While agriculture contributes to climate change, the latter impacts the former. With the rapid growth of the world’s population, there’s an increasing demand to produce more food with limited vital resources.

Although efforts to meet Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2 – Zero Hunger – have stalled, it’s estimated that an additional 345 million people will face acute food insecurity as 2022 ends due to climate change and conflicts.

The war in Ukraine has resulted in many countries imposing trade related policies. And the global food crisis has been exacerbated by a growing number of trade restrictions put in place by countries, to increase domestic supply and reduce prices.

According to the World Food Programme (WFP), the number of people whose access to food in the short term has been restricted to the point that their lives and livelihoods are at risk had increased to 345 million in 82 countries by June 2022.

As of 11 August, at least 23 countries have implemented 33 food export bans and a minimum of seven have implemented 11 export limiting measures.

Climate change is a significant threat that’s running parallel to the socioeconomic consequences resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Excessive rainfall causing floods or no precipitation resulting in drought can be highly detrimental to crop production.

Heatwaves and droughts hit large parts of Europe during the summertime, particularly in the southern part of the continent. Winters have become milder and wetter in the north. Both are trends that will continue in the future and affect agriculture, and not least food security.

According to the World Bank, domestic food prices have tracked global counterparts, which have worsened due to droughts. Food price inflation in India has extended to several of its neighbours including Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

Our individual choices of food profoundly affect greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In agriculture, the more substantial emissions aren’t carbon dioxide (CO2) but methane (CH4), which is produced mainly in animal husbandry, and the nitrous oxide (N2O) that is released when nitrogen fertilisers are used.

Since synthetic fertilisers aren’t found in organic farming, GHG emissions are about 50 percent lower than in conventional agriculture. Therefore, the consumption of products of organic farming could contribute significantly to reducing GHG emissions.

The entire system of food production such as using farming machinery, spraying fertiliser and transporting products causes the release of tonnes of GHG emissions each year. Emissions resulting from the production of plant-based foods contribute 29 percent of total emissions in agriculture, and comprise CO2 (19%), CH4 (6%) and N2O (4%).

Paddy is responsible for most of the GHG emissions of all plant-based foods – followed by wheat, sugarcane, maize and cassava.

Animal husbandry results in higher emissions and contributes 57 percent of greenhouse gases – CO2 (31%), CH4 (20%) and N2O (6%). Beef is responsible for the most GHG emissions out of all the meat and dairy products, followed by cows’ milk, pork and chicken.

Climate change will extensively impact the planet since it’s a critical factor in the degradation of soil and water resources. In turn, this will adversely affect food production. As climate change progresses, it’s expected that soil quality will deteriorate and water supplies would become scarce. Soil is vital for storing carbon, buffering the climate and supporting plant life.

Increased temperatures or fluctuations in precipitation due to a changing climate render the soil vulnerable to degradation and can make it even more difficult for plants to access sufficient nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus for growth, from the earth.

It is expected that unpredictable weather conditions will also lead to decreased crop productivity due to interference with plant growth processes, which is a phenomenon referred to as ‘drought’ or ‘heat stress.’

The current global population is 7.6 billion and it’s expected to rise to 9.2 billion by 2050. By that time, the population in developing countries will be roughly eight billion; and in developed countries, 1.2 billion. The consensus is that global agricultural production would have to increase by about 60 to 70 percent from current levels to meet the increase in food demand by 2050.

With climate change influencing agricultural and food systems, new scientific breakthroughs are available to alleviate the consequences on the one hand and lessen the environmental impact of food production on the other.

As a result, future tasks will encompass developing sustainable agricultural systems, decreasing environmental pollution, boosting yields, offering fair and equitable nutrition distribution, and reducing malnourishment so that there’s food security for all.