The global food system is responsible for about one-third of human-caused greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, with most of those emissions attributed to agriculture and land use. But food can also be an incredibly powerful solution. Because of their immense power, food and beverage companies can help support governments and civil society to achieve major climate goals—or, they can do the opposite.
“We’re not going to solve this by waiting for government, COP, the UN, or anyone to solve it. This is something that requires individual action, and to be frank, it requires radical action,” Patrick Brown, CEO of Impossible Foods, says at a Global Landscapes Forum panel hosted by Oatly and moderated by Food Tank President Danielle Nierenberg at COP26 on November 6.
Many of these solutions lie in the animal agriculture industry. According to Brown, talking about the food system as a climate problem is like calling out liquids as a problem instead of the oil industry. “The most destructive technology in human history is the use of animals to make food,” he says.
Policymakers, businesses, and civil society can create new business models that support farmers, eaters, and businesses alike. Much of this action can be driven by learning what’s already working. For example, while Indigenous peoples account for five percent of the global population and hold less than a quarter of the world’s land, they maintain 80 percent of the remaining biodiversity.
“When we think about what we should be doing differently, it’s learning from many of these Indigenous practices,” says Tania Eulalia Martinez Cruz, Indigenous Activist and Researcher. Policies should be designed with this context in mind, she says, accounting for the rich tradition within Indigenous food systems.
“If we got rid of animal agriculture today and continued to grow plant-based products in the same way that they’re grown today, and not paying attention to [these lessons], we’d still have a broken system,” Ashley Allen, CSO at Oatly, adds.
There’s no doubt that consumers are demanding healthier solutions and want more information about supply chains, and meanwhile, farmers are suffering in the current food system model. Businesses have a critical role to play in driving the shift towards a more sustainable food system that leaves no one behind.
Oatly is working to bring food products’ carbon foodprints to the forefront of labels and conversations surrounding sustainability. Meanwhile, Apeel Foods is empowering consumers to prevent the “low-hanging fruit” of food waste, says Jessica Vieira, Apeel’s Senior Director of Sustainability.
But modernization is not the only way forward. For Louise Mabulo, Founder of the Cacao Project in the Philippines, localized solutions are more practical and economical. Food businesses can sustainably scale by finding where this local knowledge meets more modern technologies.
“It doesn’t mean we have to go back to pulling tractors by horses,” says Allen.
Eventually, all businesses and production models will have to be sustainable: The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has warned that the planet has fewer than 60 harvests left. If businesses don’t invest in more sustainable practices now, they won’t make any business down the line, says Mabulo.
Financial institutions are beginning to see a solid business case for investing in sustainability. Vieira speaks about a recent shift from viewing food waste—a US$2.6 trillion problem—not as a tax on the system but as an untapped savings account.
But food technology solutions can only be scaled if they are appropriately adapted to each region. A food systems transition would look very different in the global north versus the global south, says Mabulo. Democratizing the distribution of these solutions means investing in Indigenous communities while ensuring they’re the ones leading the research, certifications, and education within their own communities.
“If we move fast enough, is there potential for us to not just address food loss and waste, increase income opportunities by creating market access, but maybe even leapfrog the cold chain in some instances,” says Vieira.
But this requires partnerships to understand producers’ on-the-ground needs. For example, International Finance Corporation (IFC) and Apeel are partnering in emerging markets to increase market opportunities for fruit and vegetable producers with Apeel’s plant-based shelf-life extension technology. Oatly is helping dairy farmers transition to crops such as oats and cashews that can be used to make plant milk, butter, cheese, and yogurt.
By forging unconventional partnerships as well as working with and building upon Indigenous knowledge systems, “transformation is not only possible, it’s necessary,” says Nierenberg.
“We don’t have 11 years, we have tomorrow to make these changes. Now more than ever, we can’t sit back and have all talk and no action.”
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