Dietary Change – Backgrounder

This backgrounder is also available in a PDF leaflet format that can be printed and distributed from here in both color and black and white. Available here.

When asked what contributes to global warming, most people think cars, airplanes, and factories, but what hardly comes up as an answer is the food we eat. (1)

However, scientists have been telling us for decades that many of the foods we eat contribute to varying degrees to global warming through the greenhouse gases produced through agricultural machinery, through the energy used for transporting crops and animals, from the use of fertilizers, and through the gases released from animals and through deforestation. (2)  And scientists looking into this issue have been telling us the solution: our diets and the ways we grow our food need to change if we are to limit global warming below the level above which scientists warn will lead to catastrophic and irreversible climate changes for our civilization. (3)

And like every other sector of the economy, difficult but necessary changes will be required to make our diets sustainable.

Two of the major changes called for by experts are:

  • We need to substantially reduce our demand for food, especially our demand for meat. The major culprit for emissions in this sector is livestock farming for meat and dairy production. Greenhouse gas emissions from meat are considerably higher than from plants. According to experts looking into this for the United Nations, animal farming alone accounted for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2013: more than all the greenhouse gases released by the tailpipes of all world’s vehicles that year, making it a principle driver of climate change.(5)  Around 75 per cent of the world’s agricultural land and 23 per cent of its arable land is used to raise animals, through growing crops for animal feed and through the use of pastures as grazing land. (6)  In Canada, 42% of farms are used for animal and dairy farming. As the world population grows and becomes richer, the demand for food is expected to increase by 60% or more by 2050 according to the United Nations. (7) The demand for food has led to global expansion of farmland at a rate of about 10 million hectares per year during the last decade. Much of this cleared land is – or was – tropical rainforest, adding more greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere and reducing the capacity of land to absorb and store carbon. (5)  The demand for meat alone could virtually guarantee that international aspirations to limit warming to a safe level are unachievable. (8)
  • We need to reduce the amount of food waste we currently produce. Canadians wasted 40% of the food we produced in 2013, costing us $31 billion yearly, the equivalent of 2 percent of Canada’s gross domestic product (GDP) for that year, and higher than the combined GDP of the 29 poorest countries. (13) And 47% of this food is wasted on the consumer’s side. (13) Not only is food wasted, but so is all the fuel, resources, time, and energy used to produce it, not to mention the additional greenhouse gas emissions that are produced when ending up in landfill. We can make major cuts in greenhouse gas emissions if serious efforts to eliminate food waste are undertaken.

Changes in our diets will be unavoidable if we are to actually try to stop a breaking down of our climate, and the longer we wait to make those changes, the more severe and life-threatening the changes to our climate we are currently witnessing will become.

Breaking the Silence

Many governments around the world have remained silent on this issue. And at home, even as the body of evidence grows and severity of the problem becomes less easy to avoid, our own government has yet to acknowledge in a public way that dietary changes will be necessary to do our part in fight climate change.

While many people are already making changes to their diets and consuming more responsibly, and some farmers are moving away from livestock farming to producing plant-based proteins, these positive changes are not happening at the scale and speed that scientists have established as necessary to halt global warming and avoid irreversible climate damage. (16) That is why it is widely acknowledged by experts that government intervention will be necessary to adequately address the problem.

Thankfully, there are opportunities for our government to take leadership on the issue and there has been an expressed commitment to reducing emissions from agriculture from the Trudeau government and his provincial and territorial counterparts. The Trudeau government has recently undertaken public consultations on what will be in our first National Food Policy and the new Canada Food Guide. This can be the opportunity for our government to break the silence that has held back much needed action in this sector by acknowledging the impacts of our diet on the climate, and just as importantly, investing in the solutions.

Federal progress on climate change has in the past been a story of disappointment, with greenhouse gas emissions continuing to rise since our first Canadian climate action plan in 1992. (18) We cannot afford to waste more valuable time and resources on half-measures that will only postpone and increase the cost of the more difficult changes that will need to be put in place anyways. Canadians expect their government to do what is right on this issue and break the cycle of inertia that has plagued previous government efforts.

Ecology Ottawa proposes the following common sense measures from the Federal government as a first step to address the climate impacts of our diets:

  • Acknowledge the science and the severity of the problem;
  • Perform environmental and climate impact assessments for the farming industry to determine their long-term sustainability;
  • Develop a large-scale national program and a set of rules to move our agricultural sector away unsustainable practices and excessive meat and dairy production;
  • End agricultural subsidies and research grants that are worsening the problem;
  • Encourage the widespread adoption of sustainable diets through a comprehensive government campaign that reaches all Canadians and that takes into account cultural appropriateness;
  • Lead by example and ensure public institutions use their massive purchasing power to buy sustainable food options and send a clear market signal;
  • Align dietary change with policies to manage healthcare costs;

Take action

Ecology Ottawa encourages you to talk to your Member of Parliament or call on Prime Minister Trudeau to take immediate action on this issue. Present to them the reality of the situation and ask them what they will do about it. Hold them accountable by keeping a record of their answers. Ecology Ottawa has compiled a couple of fact sheets and other resources that you can easily print and share with your local politicians.

Sources:

(1) https://www.chathamhouse.org/publication/livestock-climate-change-forgotten-sector-global-public-opinion-meat-and-dairy

(2) http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar5/wg3/ipcc_wg3_ar5_chapter11.pdf

(3) https://www.chathamhouse.org/publication/changing-climate-changing-diets

http://www.unep.org/newscentre/top-12-ways-world-can-end-hunger-stem-environmental-damage-food-systems

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2009/oct/26/palm-oil-initiative-carbon-emissions

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2008/sep/07/food.foodanddrink

http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/v4/n10/full/nclimate2353.html

http://www.pnas.org/content/113/15/4146.full

(4) http://www.fao.org/docrep/018/i3437e/i3437e00.htm

(5) https://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms3918

(6) http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v478/n7369/full/nature10452.html

(7) http://www.fao.org/docrep/016/ap106e/ap106e.pdf

(8) https://www.carbonbrief.org/guest-post-failure-to-tackle-food-demand-could-make-1-point-5-c-limit-unachievable

(9) https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/oct/18/warning-of-ecological-armageddon-after-dramatic-plunge-in-insect-numbers

http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0185809

(10) https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/only-60-years-of-farming-left-if-soil-degradation-continues/

(11) https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/sep/21/assumed-safety-of-widespread-pesticide-use-is-false-says-top-government-scientist

(12) https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G17/017/85/PDF/G1701785.pdf?OpenElement

(13) http://vcm-international.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Food-Waste-in-Canada-27-Billion-Revisited-Dec-10-2014.pdf

(16) https://www.carbonbrief.org/guest-post-failure-to-tackle-food-demand-could-make-1-point-5-c-limit-unachievable

(17) http://www.agr.gc.ca/eng/about-us/public-opinion-and-consultations/consulting-on-the-next-agricultural-policy-framework/calgary-statement-towards-the-next-policy-framework/?id=1468864509649

(18) http://www.oag-bvg.gc.ca/internet/English/parl_cesd_201710_01_e_42489.html

 

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