Why the Food System Is the Next Frontier in Climate Action

Yves here. Both my parents were born just before the Depression. I therefore had their deep disapproval of waste, particularly of food, drilled into me. For instance, when I lived in New York City, I would sometimes go to E.A.T., a fancy grocer run by a member of the famed Zabars clan who’d had a falling out and launched his own brand. I’d usually shop right before closing to snag some coffee beans for the AM (that store was always so empty even at peak time yet replete with fantastic meats, a wide range of cheeses, and fish that the only explanation I could come up with was that it was actually in the money laundering business).

In any event, I found it distressing to see the staff with huge bags of bread that they were throwing out. They said it was surplus to what the food pantries for the homeless would take.

That sort of thing happens all over the US with perishables, many of which are still quite fresh.

So yes, there’s potentially a lot of low-hanging fruit (pun intended) in the food waste arena. But when I got my MBA, in my decision theory course, I learned to calculate the cost of overage and underage (as in having too many or too few goods relative to customer orders). It’s not hard to see that with food, merchants judge the cost of underage to be high, not just in terms of the loss of the sale of that item, but potentially the entire grocery cart that would have gone with it and future customer visits.

If we can’t even tackle that, it’s going to be even harder to get people in advanced economies to eat less meat, absent making it more expensive. But taxing is out….and will scarcity come soon enough?

By Daniel J. O’Brien, a policy analyst at Energy Innovation and Devan Crane, a program associate at Aspen Global Change Institute. Originally published at Yale Climate Connections

While recent federal bills have advanced climate solutions through the lenses of infrastructure, electricity production, and transportation, policymakers are now turning their attention to another major source of planet-heating emissions: the food system. In its March 2023 report on U.S. biotechnology and biomanufacturing innovation, the White House emphasized a coming focus on climate-centric agriculture. In February, a group of House representatives launched a task force to ensure that the 2023 farm bill contains strong climate provisions.

Why This New Focus on the Food System?

In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, — a body of experts created to inform governments about scientists’ state of knowledge on climate change — laid out a report detailing the consequences of global warming of more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. Above this threshold, Earth’s climate would change in dangerous ways, including frequent heat waves, rising sea levels that flood coastal cities, and biodiversity failures that could disrupt entire ecosystems. Per the IPCC’s 2023 report, we have already hit 1.0°C of warming.

Absent any revolutionary changes in dietary patterns or agricultural production practices, global food production and consumption is projected to contribute an additional 0.7 to 0.9°C of warming, sending us crashing through the looming 1.5°C ceiling

Historically, changing food production and consumption practices has been slowly growing in importance in climate policy decision-making. With up to 0.5°C of mitigation potential, the food system presents governments, corporations, and individuals with the next great opportunity for impactful climate action.

Where Do Food-Related Emissions Come From?

From farming and transportation to packaging and consumption, food-system-related emissions contribute to climate change in numerous ways. Identifying where those emissions come from will allow us to cut the footprint of the food system in the coming decades.

According to the United Nations, nearly two-thirds of food emissions stem from land use and land-use changes. Trees and grasslands naturally absorb and store carbon dioxide as they grow. But across the world, forests are torn down at an annual rate of 10 million hectares — an area the size of South Korea — in large part for agricultural expansion. As these trees are cleared, they release stored carbon into the air, nullifying the climate storage impact they would have had over their lifetimes. Similarly poor management practices of pastures, grasslands, and croplands reduce lifetime soil carbon sequestration potentials.

Another major contributor to food-system pollution is food loss and waste. Food loss occurs largely before food reaches the consumer due to poor supply-chain management or lack of technology or markets to avoid spoilage during transportation. Food waste, by contrast, is the result of end-consumer behavior—and, on its own, causes 8 to 10% of all human-caused heat-trapping pollution. High-income countries predominantly struggle with food waste issues, while low-income countries grapple more with food loss.

When food is wasted, so too is all the energy used in its production and transport. Further, food waste sent to landfills breaks down, releasing significant amounts of methane, a heat-trapping gas with 25 times the warming potency of carbon dioxide.

Food loss and waste are particularly problematic when it comes to produce. For example, for every carton of cherries consumed, farmers need to produce three cartons. That’s because for every unit eaten, one is wasted by consumers and another is lost between the farm and retail stages.

(Image credit: Energy Innovation Policy & Technology)

According to a recent study, several factors contribute to consumers’ wasteful behaviors. For instance, some people are put off by imperfections in food appearance. Misunderstandings around “best-by” vs. “use-by” dates further exacerbate waste issues. Understanding these drivers of consumer waste can help inform targeted policies and educational campaigns.

At-home food waste is inherently more tangible to consumers — like when you forget that bag of now-slimy spinach in the refrigerator or scrape leftovers into the trash can — and therefore serves as a ripe opportunity to build awareness. But helping people understand earlier life-cycle loss can also help them develop more mindful habits. Educating consumers on how food is lost during harvesting, farm-to-retail transportation, or when surplus is left on store shelves can encourage them to buy locally sourced food, only buy what they need, and reduce wasteful practices.

Dietary Shifts Needed to Change How We Use Land

Another recent study that mapped out potential pathways to a net-zero-emissions food system found that virtually all paths to net-zero relied on consumers pivoting to a more plant-forward diet. Specifically, to reach net-zero, we must reduce livestock products by 10 to 25%.

Raising livestock for consumption is an emissions-heavy process. Some heat-trapping gases come from tilling soils and applying fertilizers, but the biggest source is land-use change. Almost 40% percent of all habitable land across the globe is now used for meat and dairy production. If demand for animal products were reduced, this area could be reforested with trees or restored to diverse grasslands that absorb carbon dioxide as they grow.

The potential to reduce demand for animal protein has also grown in the last decade with the development of technologies to produce affordable meat alternatives that closely resemble animal-based meat in appearance and taste. Based on plants or microorganisms, these proteins’ production release significantly less emissions than traditional, commercial-scale livestock cultivation. According to the World Economic Forum, investment in plant-based protein offers the highest heat-trapping pollution savings per dollar of invested capital of any sector but remains significantly under-invested. This burgeoning industry offers a major opportunity for smart policymaking and investing.

Beyond Individual Decisions

Though consumer decisions can reduce food-system emissions, well-designed policies at all levels can facilitate both consumer- and pre-consumer-level change.

Stores can adopt circular economy practices, redirecting food from landfills by donating still-good food for human and animal consumption and routing inedible foods to composting, bioproducts, and sewage and wastewater treatment facilities. These actions will cut down on food loss and waste and have created many new services for consumers. Many people can now access composting/biofuel services, donate to food banks, or subscribe to a farm share for “ugly” fruits and vegetables that do not meet grocery stores’ visual standards.

At the supply-chain level, energy-efficiency improvements can be made both on the farm and along the downstream food chain. Smart irrigation techniques can reduce agricultural water and energy waste. Changes to industrial operations, like switching off not-in-use machinery and improving process heat equipment’s insulation, can add up to 20 to 30% energy-use savings.

For their part, governments have distinct agency over the future of our food systems. Leaders are in a position to incentivize afforestation and reforestation as consumer diets pivot to less land-intensive products, enact regulations that support lower-emissions foods, and shift farm subsidies toward plant-based proteins.

Due to a growing global population, food demand is expected to rise by as much as 50 to 110% over the coming decades. Nonetheless, emerging research suggests that we can abate more than 55% of anticipated warming from global food consumption by reducing food loss and waste, shifting diets, and adopting production practices that prevent heat-trapping pollution. By confronting food system challenges, we can keep our planet from warming and have our cherry pie too.

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  1. TimH

    Used to go to a Saturday morning street fruit n veg market in East London donkey’s years ago. In the last half hour or so, you could pay very little to get cartons of stuff, because it would be chucked otherwise. There’s a lot you can do with loads of tomatoes.

    1. Late Introvert

      Agree that tomatoes are the easiest to put up in large quantities. Straight up can them, make wicked pasta sauce in a slow-cooker and freeze it by the jar. Roast them and freeze them. Dry them out a la sun-dried. Tomato paste takes very little space and represents dozens of those tasty suckers.

  2. Bemildred

    Thank you for bringing this up, it is an embarassment the way we grow and distribute our food here, and it shows in the health and well-being of the people who live here.

  3. Cristobal

    The crisis is here now. Spain is in the midst of a devastating drought – Andalucía, la Meseta, Cataluña. Where I live the hundreds of irrigated parcels that have provided work and good incomes to people in the area will not be planted this year because there is no water. I have seen some estimates of crop losses as high as 60%. The wheat and sunflower fields (mostly not irrigated) are burned up. The few plants that survive produce no grain, the reservours are at record lows. Grapes, olives, and the vegetables that are exported all over the world will be more scarce this year. France as well is suffering. 2023 may be the year of no wine! There is no water, and all the money in the world will not be a substitute.

    As I understand, in the past the EU has been able to help compensate for crop failures when they occured as part of their CAP (aids to agriculture). This year the money available from the EU may be lilmited. The main contributor, Germany, has been devastated economically by the war/sanctions. That country is not alone. Once the line of countries seeking entry to the EU realize that the gravy train is drying up, their enthusiasm will be tempered. As this post makes clear, the current priorities are all wrong.

    1. LY

      Change is coming first via water, either too much or too little.

      Cristobal mentioned Spain and France. In the US, I haven’t seen a survey of how the floods in California’s Central Valley will impact food supplies – dairy, vegetables, nuts, fruit, etc. For the Colorado river, the recent atmospheric rivers have only postponed the day of reckoning. And who knows what droughts or floods will occur on the Great Plains in the US corn and wheat belts?

      1. Martin

        SW and Central Kansas driest in 120+ years. Tens of thousand of rainfed locally called dryland, farming, wheat fields will simply not be harvested. “Plant in the dust and your bins will bust” heard that wishful homily a lot last fall. Not now. Not enough moisture to sprout the wheat last fall, farmers planted nonetheless- have to have seed out to receive insurance payment.

        1. Bart Hansen

          Yes, the U. S. Drought Monitor shows that area as in a widespread Exceptional Drought, bigger than all other ED areas in the country.

          1. some guy

            If anyone within the ED zone has been practicing Gabe Brown/Gary Zimmer farming for the last 20 years, this has been and will be a test of their relative drought-resilience/ drought-tolerance relative to their cancer-juice Haber Bosch neighbors.

      2. bill

        In Sacramento and Bay Area my two Santa Rosa plumb trees have nearly nil new fruit, heavy crop last year. This year only my figs look good.

        Awaiting news re: the almond crop in Davis. Only 20% of blooms actually fruit, and that’s about just right, otherwise there would be too many for the tree to sustain. As they say, “The life of a stone fruit is hard”.

      3. kam

        1. California’s climate has always been feast or famine for water and snow.
        2. Dams, reservoirs and canals were built in California over the past 100 years expressly for the purpose of storing water in years of excess.
        3. The Sierra Nevada Mountains contain 220-300% more snow (Snow Water Equivalent) today than average.
        4. With exception of one reservoir, all of California’s reservoirs are full or nearly full, and spring rains have yet to come.
        Government tinkering with the Food Supply guarantees shortages and starvation.

        1. some guy

          All the dams in California were government funded and government built/ buildment-overseen.
          Government tinkering with the food supply? Yes, by making a food supply even possible in California.

          1. kam

            Good Point on the reservoirs, but I think most of them were funded at the local and state level.

            1. some guy

              Hmm . . . while I assume some of the dams must be BuRec Federal funded, California even then was a big enough rich enough state that it could fund many of its dams at the state or even local level.

              But “state and local” government is still government.

    2. JohnA

      This year the money available from the EU may be limited.

      Unfortunately money will be limited for EU farmers because is is unlimited for the Ukraine laundromat.

  4. flora

    hmmm. Aspen Global Change Institute.

    Bill Gates, largest private farmland owner in the US probably is waiting in anticipation, no doubt. Then there’s Jame Dyson and Michael Cannon in UK. Just a coincidence.

    1. Brunches with Cats

      Climate friendly farming is buzz of Davos, Cargill CEO David MacLennan says
      From last May, haven’t checked whether NC had any links at the time.

      FWIW, I recently watched a vid of a university recruiting speech three years ago by another Cargill exec in which he addressed dietary trends, including insects (in yesterday’s links) and plant-based meat. But he emphasized that Cargill is heavily invested in meat and especially poultry. Given their penetration of US government* and global organizations such as WEF, UN World Food Programme, etc., I’m guessing that meat will continue to be more than a “condiment” in the near term and that bugs will be in the chicken feed, rather than on our plates, or turned into some kind of protein powder to add to processed foods.

      * E.g., the head of Cargill’s DC lobby sat on the White House Security Council under three presidents.

      1. flora

        About ze bugs, I hope you’re right. However, if food products in the EU contain the ingredients E120 or E904, ze bugs are part of the ingredients. Those two are the ones I know about. Are there others?

        Not sure if the US requires labeling.

        1. Brunches with Cats

          According to the FDA website, chemical colors must be listed by their certified name (e.g., FD&C Blue No. 1), while naturally derived colorants are exempt from certification and may be listed simply as “artificial color.” Many manufacturers do list them, though, as they’re typically more expensive and may be preferred by some consumers.

          Per FDA: “Examples of exempt colors include annatto extract (yellow), dehydrated beets (bluish-red to brown), caramel (yellow to tan), beta-carotene (yellow to orange) and grape skin extract (red, green).”

          However, those rules pertain only to additives such as colorants and preservatives. AFAIK, ingredients that are part of the nutritional makeup of a product — whether or not they have any caloric value (e.g., artificial sweeteners) — MUST be listed, and in the case of protein, the source, e.g. “soy protein.” In the case of meat, however, I’ve never seen a rule requiring processors to state what the chicken or cow ate for dinner and don’t think it’s a remote possibility.

          Meanwhile, the Cargills of the world surely know that consumer acceptance of insect protein, particularly in affluent countries, is going to require a major PR campaign — another reason I doubt we’ll be forced to eat mealy worm patties anytime soon. I’m betting on their starting out with chicken feed or food for farmed fish, then perhaps other livestock and eventually pet food. In my online meanderings I came across an old article (90s) about a Cargill plant in Ukraine that processed pet food for Purina. No idea whether it’s still there, but they likely have a gazillion others around the world. If people get up in arms about insects in kibble for Tiger and Bud, marketing either gets fired … or a bigger budget.

      2. iridaniotter

        Chickens naturally eat insects. It’s kind of funny that vegetarian eggs have been marketed as superior.

        1. flora

          They’re more expensive. Just like plant based Beyond Meat vs regular ground beef hamberger.

        2. Brunches with Cats

          Thanks, I was going to point this out and only just now got the time. I lived for several years on a winery in southern France where they raised chickens, primarily for eggs; eaten after they stopped laying. The birds were outdoors all day, indoors at night for safety. During the day, they foraged for insects and grubs. Their diet was supplemented in the evening with feed corn. They also got the food waste from kitchen and garden (first time I ever saw chickens fight over a piece of cheese!).

          The chickens were part of a biodynamic farming system as well. Every couple of months, the winery workers would clean out the coop and put the manure in a pile to compost before spreading on the vines, along with fireplace ash. They didn’t use herbicides — rare for that region — although they were required by the government to spray for certain pests during outbreaks.

          Anyway, I would think adding insects and grubs to chicken feed would be a good thing. That said, it’s hard to imagine Big Ag producing anything like what I saw at the winery. No doubt they’d calculate the cost-benefit and come up with a mix for max profits. How much better it would be for the environment, IMO, is currently mere speculation. Plus, my overactive imagination can’t help thinking about an insect jailbreak…

        3. Jams O'Donnell

          Tiring as it is to point this out time after time, there is no such thing as a ‘vegetarian egg’, except as part of some marketing scam. A vegetable is part of the ‘plant kingdom’, whereas an egg is produced by birds or reptiles, which are not plants. ‘Vegetarians’ who eat eggs are not ‘vegetarians’.

    2. Jeremy Grimm

      This post does look similar to “Reducing food system emissions, one bite at a time”, Aspen Global Change Institute
      Also one of the directors at the Aspen Global Change Institute just happens to be a graduate from Yale. I think it strange that the Aspen Global Change Institute receives funding from: NASA, the National Science Foundation, NOAA, the Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Dept. of Energy, USDA, U.S. Geological Survey, noted prominently ahead of their other supporters.

      I feel this post seems to direct attention away from other CO2 and Methane sources while at the same time ignoring the substantial water pollution problems resulting from the meat processing industry and agricultural runoff, and skip past the Big Ag’s destruction of soil. Instead, let us all start a debate between vegetarians and omnivores, and of course waste, especially food waste is good to help get things going. As individuals or local organizations we can fuss over food waste, do composting, eat less meat, buy local … … and busy ourselves over all sorts of minor concerns, while Big Oil, Big Ag, Big Industry, the MIC, and others can go about their business.

      — As for bugs — that keeps reminding me of the scenes from ‘Snowpiercer’ showing the source of the food bars feeding the people living in the rear sections of the train.

      1. Aaron

        Thanks for this perspective, I was thinking the same thing. Little pressure is placed on the corporations, those who clear cut the guests for beef and palm oil production.

        The article also continued the illusion the Big Ag is the only option. If there was proper government funding shifts, we could have widespread smaller scale ecosystem friendly farming, with much less spoilage.

  5. LY

    As for food waste, we can institutionalize and scale up using food waste as pig feed. This absolutely has to be properly regulated, as African Swine Fever can spread if the food waste is not properly handled and prepared.

    As for eating less meat, that’s the Mark Bittman diet.

    1. thousand points of green

      We can also institutionalize and scale up using food waste as a key ingredient in making industrial scale compost. Which we could then feed back to the soil the food came from. To give another generation of plants another crack at the soil-nutrients.

  6. PlutoniumKun

    I hate to advocate market based solutions, but one aspect that could be tweaked is a mix of removing subsidies and taxes is animal feed and other energy based inputs. There are lots of hidden subsidies pushing farmers towards intensive animal raising (even upland sheep are now often given supplementary feed in the winter to allow artificially high stocking levels). Taxing nitrogen inputs and grain based animal feeds could substantially push the incentives towards plants for human food and grass based animal husbandry.

    It should be said that in most countries the farming lobby has been hijacked by the agri-inputs lobby. The Dutch farm ‘rebellion’ for example is little more than a bunch of rich, high intensity farmers acting as fronts for Big Ag pleading for their subsidies so they can import yet more Brazilian rainforest soy to feed to cattle so they can sell more baby formula to China or surplus whey to bodybuilders.

    1. Brunches with Cats

      > Big Ag pleading for their subsidies

      Bingo. Although I doubt they have to plead all that much. See my longer comment above replying to Flora.

    2. Stephanie

      You are very likely correct this will need to be part of the solution. Hoping for an massive change at the individual or household level is a pipe dream, as TomW’s remark below illustrates. A strong combination of social and economic pressure is needed.

    3. caucus99percenter

      Concerning the Dutch farmers’ revolt, eco-activist Vandana Shiva might disagree with you. I cannot link to the video as it seems that comments containing links to certain sites won’t post, but Ms. Shiva did do an appearance with Russell Brand where she said that the Dutch farmers’ protests are justified and the Dutch government is lying.

    4. some guy

      As long as social-based solutions remain forbidden by the upper class, market based solutions are the only thing permitted and the only tire irons we have. So we pursue them and apply them if we can.

  7. Stephen

    Not sure about plant based meat substitutes. Plant based is a good PR word but opium and sugar are plant based too.

    These all sound to me like highly processed foods. Lots of opportunity for money making to create highly artificial carbohydrate rich foods that create insulin surges when eaten and help engender insulin resistance, obesity and diabetes.

    Ultra processed food has arguably been the cause of much of the health challenges that the world has increasingly seen. We sometimes over focus on health care systems as the issue. Using climate change as a way to get everyone to consume even more ultra processed food would be a classic policy error, but one that I am sure the elites will push.

    1. JeremyGrimm

      You might want to try Chinese “Monk’s” Food based on ways of cooking tofu skins. Many Indian vegetarian dishes are also inexpensive to make and tasty. I eat meat, but eat it less and less as the price goes up and up.

    2. some guy

      The reason the elites will push more ultraprocessed food is that it will raise the death rate and reduce the number of people reaching the age of Social Security or Pension or profitable job-exploitability, etc. Ultraprocessed food fits in with the Jackpot Design Engineering agenda.

    3. Piotr Berman

      For me, falafel is a proven technology for “meat substiture” and tastes better. And you wrap them with plenty of veggies. I did not check exactly, but if you rely on peas, beans, lentils and add one egg a day or a cup of milk, you should get proper balance of aminoacids.

      I am not a vegetarian, but I have ca one serving of fish and meat per week, my experience with falafels is from my time in Germany. Syrian falafel shops were best.

    4. Adam Eran

      “Plant-based whole foods” is the diet promoted by Drs McDougall, Barnard, Ornish (Clinton’s diet advisor after his quadruple bypass), etc.

      Arnold Schwarzenegger, along with James Cameron and Jackie Chan also are promoters of this kind of eating. See The Game Changers in streaming venues. Also What the Health and Forks Over Knives.

    1. Adam Eran

      Nice video! Michael Pollan reports the U.S. burns 10 calories of petroleum for every calorie of food it produces. That industrial model has been around for a while too. Earl Butz–Nixon’s Ag secretary–said to farmers “Get big or get out,” destroying what was left of family farms in many cases with public policy designed to do just that.

      I’d suggest the U.S. is in for a rude awakening…but that’s also nothing new, especially on NC.

  8. Henry Moon Pie

    One major aspect left out of this article are carbon emissions from making nitrogen fertilizers from petroleum:

    Although nitrogen-based fertilisers are already known to be a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, this is the first time that their overall contribution, from production to deployment, has been fully quantified. Their analysis found that manure and synthetic fertilisers emit the equivalent of 2.6 gigatonnes of carbon per year – more than global aviation and shipping combined.

    There are claims that there are ways to significantly reduce this, but currently “scrubbing” efforts are minimal.

    It’s another reason we must move to permaculture. If we could tackle food waste, that could help us make the transition from an energy-intensive agriculture back to labor-intensive (i.e. the energy is coming from humans).

  9. Lexx

    ‘No stems, no seeds, that you don’t need, Acapulco Gold is …(sound of deep toke)… badass weeeed.’

    We need the stems and seeds now. It’s legal (in many states) and they’re useful.

    Eliminate the middle aisles of the grocery store from your list and make those foodstuffs yourself… yes, I can hear the cry of anguish from here.

    The more I investigate the ‘pantry’ section of cookbooks, the more I realize how much human activity once centered around food gathering and preserving. The more we bring those activities back in-house, the greater the appreciation and the less the waste. We’ll have more skin in the game. Who wants to toss out a batch of anything that took hours/days to gather and eat then, and/or preserve for later?

    I picked up a book titled, ‘Cooking With Scraps’, where I read the peel of an apple can be turned into chips and the core(s) used to make apple cider vinegar. Any strongly flavored green can become a pesto. You can make banana bread with the peels (properly cooked in advance); the tops of carrots, beets, celery, fennel, leeks. mushroom stems, pumpkin guts, and stone fruit pits are all edible and useful in recipes, in addition to using ‘waste’ to infuse broth, alcohols, and vinegar.

    Even when we were set out to be purposeful with what we’ve purchased, we throw out a lot of nutrition just because we don’t know what else to do with it.

      1. Societal Illusions

        it seems we are heading to a place where need will become the mother of invention, or perhaps more accurately, reinvention…

    1. Eshero

      Cooking takes work and time. Most people are at work all day and do not have the time or want to do the work of cooking when they get home. If we are serious about changing how people eat and cook then they need time to do both and we need to come up with a better solution than “everybody works outside the home.”

      1. Lexx

        No argument… see ‘cry of anguish’. It means much more time hunting, gathering, preparing, cooking, cleaning, storing, and planning. We did it once… well, mostly women. Those middle aisles represent the market’s opportunity to profits from ‘women’s work’, the work women walked away from (happily!) when they began to enter the workforce in growing numbers. The offerings in the those middle aisles grew and grew. The stuff that’s good for you (debatable) can be found at the edges, along with the electrical outlets. We traded homecooked for paychecks. We demanded variety and the food industry supplied.

        But I swear it tastes like it’s coming out of just one profit-driven, formula-based factory. I can’t eat salad dressing I didn’t make myself. That’s a good place to start, with one or two you make yourself because you just can’t stand the taste of store-bought anymore. I can taste the greed in every ingredient they compromise to make a few more pennies of profit in every unit. I suspect our gut microbiomes and the communities of bacteria that live there can taste the difference too.

  10. TomW

    People can barely change dietary habits for their own health. It is a challenging ask, for ‘net zero’.
    If you want to sell plant based Kobe Beef…maybe.

  11. Hepativore

    People seem to forget that many forms of livestock can convert non-arable land into edible biomass or dispose of food waste and harmful insects as you see with pigs and chickens. Plus, their carcasses are 100% recyclable and also essential for the production of many essential biologics. You might want to look at switching up what livestock are raised where…I.e. cattle for prairieland with low soil fertility due to their ability to digest almost any form of plant matter, and meat sheep for grazing on meadowland as they do not pull plants up by the roots with their tongue like cattle do.

    There is also the fact that nobody wants to talk about the pollution produced by farm equipment in planting cropland, tilling soil, harvesting crops, and processing them into human food. Until somebody addresses the latter elephant in the room, a lot of the rhetoric surrounding the reduction of the former in the above paragraph comes off as being empty virtue-signaling, often pushed by PMCs, often as some sort of backdoor effort to promote austerity for the lower classes.

    Anyway, because of the degree of horsepower that farm equipment often requires, I am not sure if it would even be possible to have something like an EV tractor or threshing machine, so you would probably have to come up with some sort of carbon neutral replacement liquid fuel for these sorts of vehicles, like dimethyl ether.

    1. Lex

      Yes, well managed grasslands are actually managed by herbivores, especially the big ones like cattle and bison. It’s absolutely true that well managed meet operations will joy and cannot produce the quantity of meat we see now and the extremely low price of it. But the balance is in less, better meat from ecologically sounder methods of meat production.

      I’m no expert, but ag machinery might actually be an excellent place for EV tech because it tends to need torque more than horsepower and electric motors are all torque. I would guess that the problem would be in charge length and that you can’t just put farm work off until tomorrow. The other issue would likely be parasitic draw from PTO implements or secondary machine processes. Whether those hurdles could be cleared by easy battery changes or maybe hybrid drivetrains is above my technical pay grade.

      1. thousand points of green

        And managed by the predators who manage the herbivores . . . . keep them moving ( which prevents overgrazing any one place) , etc.

    2. thousand points of green

      How much veggie-oil would an acre of oil seed crops yield? How much land would a tractor fueled by veggie-diesel be able to work? ( And Rudolf Diesel first invented his Diesel engine to run on vegetable oil).

      If an acre of oilseed would only produce enough veggie oil to fuel a tractor to work an acre of land, then what is the point? But if an acre of veggie-oil would power a tractor for more than an acre of fieldwork, then the question is . . . . how much more? Is there a point at which an acre of veggie-oil lets a tractor do so much more than an acre of work that it pays energetically to grow veggie-diesel oil to fuel veggie-diesel based tractors?

  12. Cristobal

    Someone has said ¨Don´t eat anything that your grandmother would not recognize as food¨. Henry Moon Pie has it right. More processing of our foodstuffs is not the way to go. All the comments about not wasting food, sustainable farming, preserving the microbiota in our soils, permaculture, etc are also valid. What I find worrying is the scale of the problem.

    For those of us who live in smaller cities or towns the solutions above sound reasonable, until you think about the daily food demand of a big city. How are we going to provide a million broccolis a day to the nearby big city – and that is just one. Check out some of the documentaries that illustrate what it takes to feed NYC. Every day. I am told that in Soviet Russia, and even today, many (some?) city dwellers had access to a little patch of land in the country – a dascha – for a garden. Suburban lawns could serve that purpose but the millions of people who live in the vertical beehives are sort of out of luck. Once again the land use choices made generations ago are biting us in the ass. It is not just what we eat, it is the land. I will never forget traveling from my office to one of our clients in Pennsylavnia and seeing a large farm field in a rich agricultural area outside of Philadelphia sprouting hundreds of white 4¨ PVC sewer pipes, each one destined to connect to at least one porcelin crapper. What a waste!!

  13. nigel rooney

    At a personal level, we can choose to not eat animals. Dairy too. Ditch packaged and processed foods where possible. Ditto tobacco and alcohol.
    Surprising health benefits can result! But hey, bad for Big Business…

    1. thousand points of green

      Or we can choose TO eat grass fed animals on multi-species carbon-capturing pasture and NOT eat corn-soy fed CAFO animals. Same for milk and cheese/etc. Grass, pature and range fed, NOT corn-soy fed CAFO milk and cheese/etc.

      That is the choice I have made.

      1. thousand points of green

        And of course NOT eat animals or milk-cheese from freshly burned down forest to make fresh pasture. Restrict ourselves to animals and/or dairy raised on already pre-existing legacy pasture or Natural Grasslands.

        We could certainly choose to NOT eat animals or dairy from countries which are actively arsonising still-existing forest for new not-needed and totally-redundant pasture and/or corn-soy plantations. Meaning eat zero beef from Brazil until we know that Brazil is raising zero beef and zero corn and zero soybeans in Amazonia. Till then, eating any beef or corn or soy from “Brazil” just allows Brazil to launder jungle beef under cover of non-jungle beef.

        And eating CAFO animals from anywhere could mean eaing corn/soy from Amazonia. Amazonian corn-soy all gets laundered through the global corn-soy system. So the only way to avoid it is to avoid CAFO beef completely so as to be disinvolved in CAFO’s use of corn-soy, including Brazilian corn-soy laundered through the worldwide CAFO system.

        Recreational ” anti-Western” “anti-colonialists” can whine about that all they want to. ” You can’t tell Brazil what to do!” That’s very true. I can’t tell Brazil what to do. And Brazil can’t tell me what to eat.

  14. Dida

    Interestingly enough, Aspen Global Change Institute is one of those ‘independent’ think-tanks founded and funded by NASA. ‘AGCI was founded in 1989 with an initial grant from the National Aeronautic and Space Administration. Since that time, NASA has continued to be an annual sponsor of AGCI workshops, and more recently, research.’ https://www.agci.org/about/funding

    So I would say that the article does not represent an actual analysis, but what our betters believe the public should believe about the incoming ecological crisis, which is more misdirection in the line of ‘bad, very bad consumers are wrecking Earth’, when in fact the design of the world economy under Western governance is rotten to the core.

    It is certainly true that people are wasting food, eating the wrong diet, and overall behaving badly, but, in order to find the root causes and who the truly bad actors are, we need to look into the global political economy of food systems, not into individual consumer behaviour and other neoliberal fantasies.

    We live in a world where Monsanto alone controls 27% of the global seed market and 90% of the seed market for soy. This is in a world where a small country like Romania, under foreign pressure, sold 40% (!) of its agricultural land to foreign investors, while IKEA, now the largest owner of forested land in the country, is burning through Romania’s last forests like there is no tomorrow. Many states of the Global South have lost any semblance of economic and food sovereignty, and control over their own natural resources. But yeah, I can see now that consumers were the problem all along.

  15. funemployed

    Buying and eating the right amount of food is hard, especially for an individual or nuclear family unit. Takes planning and work and a stable and predictable life. Also skills and knowledge that, if you don’t get them from your family, well, good luck. I’m pretty good at it and enjoy food management and preparation, and I still waste a goodly bit of the food I buy.

    If I had an irregular schedule or exhausting job or kids draining my mental faculties, I’d waste a lot more. The actually practical way for most muggles to not waste any food is to shift more to food that stores without decomposing and requires minimal preparation. This makes people fat and tired, and eventually seems to ruin the ability to enjoy actual nutritious food.

    1. some guy

      I have read that zinc is necessary for some of the taste-system enzymes residing in the taste buds to literally even function. And that a subclinical zinc defficiency can lead to deactivation/non-function of these enzymes to the point where the sense of taste is compromised or partially deleted altogether.

      And once people have been brought to a long-term state of subclinical zinc defficiency, and ultra-engineered super-loud-tasting junk food is the only food-hammer which can even make the tastebuds respond at all, it is not surprising that zinc defficient people who eat super-engineered super loud junk food will keep preferentially eating it, because food is supposed to taste like . . . . something, anyway. Innit?

  16. KIDMD

    Many farmers are embracing regenerative style agriculture, focused on a healthy soil system. This often includes thoughtful grazing changes and use of manure based (rather than petroleum) fertilizers plus cover crops. Current US agriculture “insurance” policies do not encourage this shift, but farmers are changing anyway due to fuel and fertilizer/pesticide cost savings, reversal of topsoil damage and erosion, changing weather patterns and increased pest resistance to chemicals.

    Cargill and WEF may push alternative “solutions” (? profit centers), but nutrient dense whole food may be more worthwhile and successful in the longer run. Medical system stress may further encourage diet recalibration, even if regulations continue to push factory food-like substances.

    1. some guy

      Cargill and WEF will certainly push their ” fauxternative” solutions as hard as they can. Are people who say they support the concept of eco-regenerative agriculture ready to pay a fair eco-regenerative price for eco-regenerative food so that the wannabe regenerative farmer can stay in business doing regenerative farming?
      If they are, then regenerative farming can conquer the field one farm at a time, supported by one customer base at a time.

    2. thousand points of green

      Gabe Brown (” what! HIM again!? “) wrote an article about how rigidly rejecting any trace of involvement in the Crop Insurance Program is what allowed him the freedom to develop his farming methods and make his discoveries to begin with. Here is a link to an article he wrote about that.

      If enough other farmers can run away from the Crop Insurance Program Plantation and join Gabe Brown in his genuine Freedom-Of-Personal-Farming space, perhaps they can all begin to set up a rebel-farmer-funded bridging subsidy program to other Crop Insurance Plantation Farmers who want to run away from the Crop Insurance Program Plantation and walk towards Freedom ( to farm). That could be a way to spread eco-regenerative farming to more land in the teeth of an establishment determined to prevent it from happening in every way it possibly can.

  17. Amfortas the hippie

    late to this…roofing all day yesterday(+ another 6 hours of farm stuff,lol)

    not mentioned:
    1. actual carbon capture…from biochar to merely growing long lived plants(ie: trees and stable grasslands)
    2. some of yall noticed, all the fossil fuels used to run the current industrial ag system…from chemicals to water pumping to tractors, etc to trucks taking it all over the place.
    3. so far, i waste no water, no leftovers, no humanure, and just a whole lot of other things(scrap lumber, scrap iron, even old rusty chicken wire has been accumulating in a pile for use in the Bottle Wall thats going in the bar extension). there are alternatives besides eating more bugs( you already eat bugs all the time..in flour, for instance…or raisins).

    these sorts of articles always seem to end up promoting the bill gates version of the future: high tech, using lots of energy(greenhouses are energy hogs…im working on a lot of passive methods to mitigate that, full report when im done)…centralised, corpsified, and prone to hydraulic despotism/feudalism.

  18. Mark Ó Dochartaigh

    Scientists are working on thermal tolerant RuBisCo activase, but already grains are often grown under conditions where the maximum temperature for photosynthesis is reached occasionally during the growing season. If heat and drought ruin a couple of consecutive grain harvests it will be disastrous for tens of millions. I wonder if the majority of humanity’s calories will come from far further down the food chain; bacteria, yeast, and fungi. Humans, for better or worse, are great at adaptation. For a couple of months this summer the majority of my calories will be coming from my mango trees

  19. Jams O'Donnell

    There is however, a problem with ‘meat alternatives’. There is a good deal of research showing that ultra-processed foods are in fact harmful, and that part of that harm arises from the (sometimes necessary) addition of various chemicals to provide acceptable flavour, texture, colour or shelf-life. It’s not clear to me how much of that applies to meat substitutes, and the food industry is notorious for obscure or misleading labelling, and the excess use of salt and other additives which can become harmful to consumers. There needs to be a lot more light on this subject.

    1. Allegheny

      Above article definitely represents Big Ag corporate interests. Would instead encourage readers to buy local, eat local, and avoid processed foods, leading to optimal health. Recommend purchasing the Blue Zones cookbook and stick to dense nutritious foods.

      When corporate interests and super high income earners relinquish their private jets in order to reduce CO2 emissions, perhaps then the global warming argument might gain more traction. Until then, there are much higher priorities to address when it comes to global existential crisis ( nuclear war, coronal mass ejection, asteroid impact, shifting magnetic poles…etc.)

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        Making Shit Up is not on here. You are in moderation for past offenses.

        1. “Alternative protein” is a venture capital funded industry, and not backed or part of Big Ag, although as with “organic” and “healthy” foods, you can assume any company that grows up to be pretty successful will be bought out. Alternative protein is a threat to the large and well-established beef, chicken, pork, and lamb industries.


        2. Local does not solve any of the big problems with beef. Beef is extremely inefficient (takes lots of grain calories to produce a pound of meat, while chicken is the most efficient meat, food-chain wise). And cows, unless fed a special diet, produce huge amounts of methane.

        I trust you will find your happiness elsewhere on the Internet.

  20. some guy

    Better words are needed to describe the “food system”.

    When this article discusses ” the food system”, I suspect they are discussing what we could call the Mainstream Food System, or the Cancer Juice Industrial Food System, or the Corporate Fascist Petrochemical Food System, or the Agribusiness Food System, or whatever people want to call it. We really should use a word for the Mainstream Food System which makes it clear when we are talking about the mainstream Food System . . . which is not the only food system in existence.

    But that is not “the” food system. It is a food subsystem. It is the biggest food subsystem but it is not the only one. There are various side stream food systems, parallel food systems, little backwater food systems, etc. There is an overall System of Food Subsystems for every bit of food to move from source to final use or rest with stops along the way. This overall system could be illustrated with a huge three dimensional multi-colored cats cradle yarn diagram for all the separate sources and pathways of all the foods captured or produced and then used or lost.

    There is a system of organic gardening, a system of home and community gardening, a system of foraging and gathering, a system of fish-mining from bodies of water, etc. We need a word for this too, something to indicate this SuperSystem of all the Food Subsystems. So we know when we are talking about that as against talking about the Mainstream Food System in particular. It would help us do better analysis and maybe better problem solving and danger-evading.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I hate to inform you but all the other food systems you cite are marginal in terms of total calories consumed in America. You do concede mainstream food is the biggest, but it is also dominant and dwarfs alternatives.

      1. some guy

        I do concede the MSFS dominates all. ( MSFS is an acronym I am offering for Main Stream Food System, in case other people want to start using it. If enough people do, it will enter the language. If they don’t, it will quietly die).

        So why would I even bother suggesting specific words for the marginal little food systems which still shiver in the MSFS’s cold dark looming shadow? Because I like to think or at least hope that if people have more words to think about the marginal little food systems with, that more people might begin thinking about the marginal little food systems. And that might lead more people to try finding them, either as marginal practitioners or as customers of what they produce.

        Most of us here feel that America has a democracy deficit and a legitimacy deficit. All the knobs and levers of self-government and social-technological correction have been broken or torn off the “machine”, and the only lever-of-influence that is allowed to remain working at all is the much-sneered-at lever of “individual consumer choice”. But that is the only lever of marketplace pressure against the Food System which has been allowed to remain, so we can either use it or use nothing. And the more people who know more about the marginal little food counter-systems which exist, the greater the chance that more people can defect to them. And if enough people ( and their money) defect to the marginal little food counter-systems), then elements of the MSFS might make a pragmatic pain-relief adjustment which is to the benefit of normal people seeking better food.

        An example of this can be seen in regional subsystems of the Food System. Organic food has been capturing enough defectors and their money that regional Food System subsystems have begun to notice it. For example, a regional MidWestern Food handler-broker-distributor company called Castellini Produce, which claims to serve all or parts of 18 states, now has a division offering commercial amounts of organic food to organic food buyer-resellers. They are big enough to have a fairly impressive website ( which I assume they can back up).
        They have found the organic food sector lucrative enough to begin interacting with it. This will not “change” the Food System but will at least permit potentially better food into parts of it. And creating new markets ( if genuinely profitable) for Organic farmers will permit more farmers to go Organic and upgrade the eco-sustainability of farmland management. And that was all driven by enough millions of individual consumer choices for Organic to where Castellini found the Organic sector worth paying attention to at the business level. ( I assume Castellini is dispassionately agnostic about the actual merits– or not– of Organic food). Here is the link showing Castellini’s involvement in Organic food.

        Here, at the tiny microlocal scale, is an article about a tiny food-store created to offer a micro-local community of farmers a chance to sell their food directly to personal individual buyers through a micro-local marginal food counter-system. It is about a tiny new food store here in Ann Arbor called
        Argus Farm Stop.
        The more people who know about this in Ann Arbor, the more people who can defect to it right here in Ann Arbor. And the more people who find out about this in other cities and towns, the greater the chances that someone might be able to create equivalent micro-stores in other micro-localities.

        Enough of that sort of development is how the counter-mainstream parallel food microsystems can go from nano-marginal to micro-marginal to mili-marginal to marginal to becoming ready to displace and replace the Big Fat Cancer Juice Industrial Food System if outside shocks destabilize it badly enough.

        At the time of Peak Dinosaur, the Dinosaurs were utterly predominant and our mammalian ancestors were little ratlike things and primitive proto possums and whatnot barely surviving in the Ruling Dinosaurs’ shadow. But the outside shock of Big Asteroid ended the age of Big Dinosaur and allowed the marginal mammals to emerge from the shadows and take over a vacated world.
        And so, intuiting by analogy, perhaps the little marginal side-stream food counter-systems just have to hang on and survive till Big Shock destroys Big Food and allows the little ratlike things of today’s marginal food counter-system to emerge from the shadows into the light.

        As to the article itself, I agree with several commenters who say this reads like an effort to blame little consumers for the crimes of Big Food. It reads like the ” don’t be a litterbug” campaign. Yet, as the old saying from the Czar’s Army used to have it, ” quantity is a quality all its own”. And five hundred million individual consumers making their five hundred millions sets of personal purchase and behavioral personal-food-handling choices can add up to a measurable accretive impact on emissions reductions. “Personal action” is, after all, the only lever the elites have even left on the machine for us to grab and pull. So we can only do what we can with that lever.

        I wonder whether we might call all marginal food counter-systems and side-systems together with the sum total of all personal gardening and foraging/hunting all over the world by the catchall name of . . . . “Food System D” ; inspired by Lambert Strether’s one-time referrence to ” System D” for economic survival outside the various mainstream channels.

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