25 Sep 20 | Weekly podcast
There is a massive need to address agriculture’s impacts, but existing initiatives aren’t ambitious enough
In the United States in 2015, some 9bn chickens were raised for their meat. The corn and soy used to feed them amounted to more than 57m tonnes. In China in 2013, 715m pigs were slaughtered, up from 565m in 2007.
This all generates vast volumes of greenhouse gases and of waste – and does massive environmental damage. Worldwide, new statistics from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation suggest about a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture, and that overall emissions from the sector had increased to their highest ever level in 2014.
All the evidence points to a serious problem in the production and consumption of food. And yet, agricultural emissions have received far less attention than other, industrial, emissions, which are subject, for example, to emissions trading schemes.
Greenhouse gases from fertilisers and manure make up about 38% of the emissions impact of agriculture, while methane from animals makes up about 40% (according to the UN FAO, 1990-2014 average). Rice production, even though the crop is the daily staple for about half the world’s people, contributes only 10%.
Capturing emissions from manure and turning it into biogas can also help. As can more use of organic fertilisers, and less-intense production – turning the soil on fewer occasions means lower nitrous oxide emissions. And, of course, some crops, such as peas and beans, fix nitrogen in the soil rather than allowing it to escape into the atmosphere.
Reducing meat consumption, however, is very much a consumer issue. Driven by consumer demand, many companies have evolved business models based largely on the cheap production of meat – the fast food giants, for example. And consumers are typically resistant to being told to eat less meat, with only about a third saying they are willing to do so.
Companies are already taking steps in these directions, such as the WRAP Courtauld Commitment for example, in which UK supermarkets have cooperated to reduce both food and packaging waste. There is much scope for efficiency and business can help take the big bite necessary out of food-related emissions, rather than just nibbling around the edges.