Food and Climate Change

3 Oct

The most interesting area in my line of research that’s been occurring recently is the link between Climate and Food. This is actually the main direction of Anna Lappe’s Organization, Take a Bite, and has been a subject of my former work in the US and Costa Rica (See some of my work on the subject: Coffee and Carbon Footprint of Farms, Life Cycle abstract). It’s something that I’ve been working on for a long period, and is finally coming into it’s element.

To summarize, we worry about climate change because it affects thee well-being of people and wildlife. Solutions based on alternative energy, carbon storage and capture, etc. can prevent climate change, but it cannot provide immediate relief to the poor or habitat for the displaced wildlife. Sustainable land management, on the other hand, directly solves the emissions aspect of climate change, while incentivizes good care for the environment.


I will be working to make sure the link between food consumption and climate impact makes it into climate change action. It’s a pretty serious link of the Climate Crisis puzzle, as we currently emit almost a third of global emissions based on food, putting a price on carbon would make it more sustainable in other areas too. Unfortunately it’s marred in bad lobbyists and the corporate profit motive of farmers, but Climate Change is working with sustainability is working with popular morality here. If Carbon gets a value, it’s going to be another progressive (benefits the poor) incentive to care for the earth using organic management and planting trees.

It does not eliminate all emissions from fossil fuels (but agriculture does consume a lot of fuel). Only alternative energy can do that. But alternative energy does not help the rural poor immediately. Sustainable land management payments do. Sustainable farming can appear difficult to implement, especially for large farmers, because it has to be democratic and fair and can take some time. It is a resilient way of producing many kinds of food, but does not rely on fossil fuel instead growing plants on sun and human energy, which costs less. It can store much more carbon in soil using no-till and biochar and in the trees, which for coffee especially was a huge benefit (life is made of Carbon!). For an accounting of the specific norms of transition benefit, please see my research in the projects page (right).

Organic farmers are sequestering 2 tons of Carbon per acre using sustainable techniques. The Rodale Institute argues that if all currently tilled land were managed sustainably, the amount of reduced emissions and increased storage could equal 40% of our current emissions. Cheaply, and with existing technology. No other solution can offer that so far. (Fantastic source: http://www.rodaleinstitute.org/Bowman/20090213) Carbon stored in soils has been proven to be the most resilient and long-lasting change known. Carbon in trees is safe except by fire, and doesn’t get emitted even if you use it for furniture or a house. It’s a win-win solution, just involves maintaining trees.

Also organic farming also brings desirable benefits like improved ecosystems and rural livelihoods. For example, trees on farms (agroforestry) also offer an alternative source of income when they’re big enough to be cut into furniture or house repair. Practical, nice for the farmers, but climate activists need something that promises global reform. Climate policy cannot afford to include right now these side benefits, especially when the perils of climate change are already being felt. For activists who are interested in food and climate: something must be done about getting trees planted before we can talk to legislators about valuing the lifestyle benefits of organic and no-till farming (talk to the public about that).

To summarize, we worry about climate change because it affects thee well-being of people and wildlife. Solutions based on alternative energy, carbon storage and capture, etc. can prevent climate change, but it cannot provide immediate relief to the poor or habitat for the displaced wildlife. Sustainable land management, on the other hand, directly solves the emissions aspect of climate change, while incentivizes good care for the environment.

As always the best thing about food is that it’s a personal decision you can support that gives you better health, patience, appreciation, and enjoyment of life. See my related post for the Small Planet Institute about the Real Food Challenge, coming soon! Also see Anna Lappe’s Take a Bite site specializing on this, or my own Food Around Boston page.

Impact numbers of CO2e/kg, Organic transition, and references:

- The biggest upgrade for carbon footprint is changing meat out and switching to other protiens. On average, a family spends a full 9 metric tons of greenhouse gasses per year for food. That’s about as much as two cars use in a year. A vegetarian diet can account for about a quarter in total personal emissions reductions! (22% SEI, 26%, BRASS)
- Eating locally saves an indeterminate amount of greenhouse gasses, and in fact may not be more efficient in CO2 at all. I found this odd, given the other social and ecological benefits of farmers markets. (Food miles are much less important to environment than food choices, on Mongabay)
- Organic and low-input does save a significant amount: 50% of on-farm emissions, which are up to 80% of normal food emissions per ton. For every ton the Real Food Challenge sources this way, they save around 35%

What is the average fuel economy savings of sourcing one ton of food sustainably?
1.A Healthier diet is also a greener diet. Going vegetarian is best, and eating organic (it’s the meat, and the fertilizers mainly). Simply being mindless of food is cheaper, healthier, and greener.
SEI study says – 22% cut in size of footprint.
BRASS studies – 26% cut in size of footprint.
As stated earlier, a major component of this is cutting down on meat.

2. Every $1,000 consumers spend on food releases about 1 ton of gCO2e (specifically, 1018 gCO2e/$ for food)

3. Sourcing sustainably
IF 80% of food (non-meat) emissions are produced before the food leaves the farm gate.
AND Organic farming can save 50% of those emissions,
AND Sourcing from long-distance farms has a negligible impact on emissions, (Going vegetarian makes a bigger impact than eating locally, http://news.mongabay.com/2008/0602-ucsc_liaw_food_miles.html)
THEN: Impact of a sustainable food program such as RealFoodChallenge by itself could be around 20-60% per ton savings (average ~28% per ton of food sourced, or 300 kgCO2e/$1000), changing composition to include less meat could be a larger impact.
SO: The real food project’s projected proposal to source $1b food sustainably by 2020 could save 300 thousand tons of CO2 equivalents per year from going into the atmosphere. Bravo! This is a significant chunk of some 7.2GigaTons (billions) the US emits today, or 33B internationally in 2009. (For reference, 1990 levels are 6.2GT of GHG’s .)

http://repositories.cdlib.org/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1000&context=bie

Thanks for reading!
-Eddie Miller
Home: http://eddiemill.wordpress.com/
Twitter: http://twitter.com/eddiemill

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2 Responses to “Food and Climate Change”

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  1. Contents « A Global Organic Mindset - December 23, 2009

    [...] Poor- 12/7/2009 Let’s be Thankful- 11/23/2009 From Thoreau, a Business Mentality- 11/16/2009 Food and Climate Change-10/3/2009 The Community Reality-6/11/2009 Julio- 4/28/2009 International Assessment on Agricultural [...]

  2. Master Index: EddieMill.blog « A Global Organic Mindset - April 23, 2012

    [...] Poor- 12/7/2009 Let’s be Thankful- 11/23/2009 From Thoreau, a Business Mentality- 11/16/2009 Food and Climate Change-10/3/2009 The Community Reality-6/11/2009 Julio- 4/28/2009 International Assessment on Agricultural [...]

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