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COP26 and the Environmental Footprint of Food

1 December 2021 by David Ingemar Hedin, Euromonitor International

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(Photo: Unsplash)

In Glasgow, the 26th Conference Of the Parties has got underway, again with a focus on climate change. The public interest, as estimated by the number of Google searches made in relation to previous COP meetings, is on par with the Paris conference of 2015, which saw the signing of the milestone Paris Agreement. Notably, such interest has been recorded even as the wider public interest in Green Action such as reducing food waste or plastic use has fallen significantly during the pandemic, according to Euromonitor International’s Voice of The Consumer: Lifestyle Survey.

Methane focus means food is under scrutiny

One of the topics that has come high on the agenda of COP26 is limiting methane emissions. The atmospheric concentration of this very potent greenhouse gas is now 15% higher than it was in 1983. Unlike CO2 from fossil fuels however, this gas is mid-term cyclical. Methane remains in the atmosphere for approximately 10 years before decaying into CO2 to become absorbed by plants. This means that efforts to reduce emissions of methane into the atmosphere could lead to a gradual decrease in its atmospheric concentration over the next decade, essentially reversing a part of its contribution to global warming.

This again places dairy and meat production in the spotlight. Proponents of a plant-based transition in packaged food have long decried the environmental impact of beef and dairy. Bacteria in cows’ digestive systems produce methane which enables them to digest grass, also contributes to the productive usage of 67% of the world’s agricultural land. However, a ground-breaking finding has potential to disrupt this process. By supplementing cows’ feed with the red macroalgae Asparagopsis taxiformis, there is hope for a greater reduction or even total elimination of methane production in cows, sheep and goats. To put this into context, fully eliminating methane emissions from livestock would yield a 39% reduction in agriculture’s global warming potential.

Overall, agriculture is responsible for less than 12% of World Greenhouse Gas Emissions. While this is a small proportion in relation to the energy sector (including fuel for transport), it cannot be ignored. Changes to food production have the potential to help reduce global warming at a comparatively moderate cost. Development in the last 30 years has been rapid. Global agriculture today feeds 2.2 billion more people than it did in 1993 with only 2.5% greater usage of agricultural land. Global production of beef has increased by 37% compared to 1993 with only a 0.5% increase in permanent pastures, and yet greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture in Europe have fallen by 34% since 1990. Greater efficiency is therefore possible in the years to come.

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