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How Food Production and Climate Change Create a Vicious Cycle
Impact, Water May 1, 2023

Our food systems and climate change are interconnected in a destructive cycle that threaten global food security. Climate change is putting our global food supply at risk, while at the same time, our current food production systems are accelerating climate change.

The climate change impacts of extreme heat, drought, floods, and other severe weather are damaging wheat, maize, and other crops around the world. According to the UN, crop yields could decline by 30% by 2050 if we don’t make adaptations. With the global population projected to add two billion people by 2050, this will lead to food scarcity, instability and conflict over water and fertile land for farming.

On the flip side, the way we are using land, and the food we eat, are making climate change worse. Agriculture, deforestation and other land use account for about 30% of greenhouse gas emissions, and about 80% of global freshwater use. Food production is responsible for carbon dioxide emissions, methane and other gases through a combination of clearing land and deforestation for agriculture and grazing, digestion by livestock, production and use of fertilizers, and the cultivation of rice in flooded paddies.

About half of the world’s habitable land is used for food production, and livestock accounts for 77% of global farming land when you combine pastures for grazing with land used to grow crops for animal feed. The result is that meat production is one of the leading causes of deforestation, as we continue to clear forests to produce more meat.

Global land use for food production
Global land use for food production

And there are other startling environmental impacts. The water crisis in the Colorado River basin is directly linked to our consumption of dairy and meat, as the majority of the water in the basin, totaling over one trillion gallons, is utilized for livestock feed production.

How Can We Change This Cycle?
In order to stop this destructive cycle, we need to make changes to the global food system through strategies like increasing crop yields, adopting plant-rich diets, and reducing food waste.

Increase Crop Yields
As the world population grows but the amount of farmland doesn’t, we need better soil management to increase soil fertility and to restore degraded farmlands. If farmland is more productive, that can ease pressure to clear more land. More sustainable farming practices can also boost farmer incomes and serve as a buffer to inevitable climate events.

Adopt Plant-rich Diets
Beef uses 20 times more land and generates 20 times more greenhouse gas emissions per unit of protein than any other commonly consumed food. And pound for pound, meat has a much higher water footprint than vegetables, grains or beans. One pound of beef takes an average of 1,800 gallons of water to produce. Ninety-eight percent of that water goes to watering the grass, forage and feed that cattle consume over their lifetime.

Shifting from meat consumption to more sustainable plant-based diets could result in an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. A transition to a more plant-based diet is good for the environment, and our own health as well.

This doesn’t mean that we all need to become vegetarian, vegan, or even stop eating red meat. According to the World Resources Institute, if we reduced ruminant meat consumption in high-consuming countries by about 1.5 burgers per person per week (about half of U.S. levels and 25 percent below European levels) “…it would nearly eliminate the need for additional agricultural expansion (and associated deforestation), even in a world with 10 billion people.”

There’s also a growing appetite for “meatless meat” with a deluge of plant-based alternatives now available everywhere from supermarkets to fast food chains.

Reduce Food Waste
Another powerful solution that we can all contribute to is reducing food waste. About a third of the world’s food is never eaten, which means we’ve wasted resources including seeds, water, energy, land, fertilizer, labor, money. And the food production process generates greenhouse gases at every stage—including methane when the wasted food ends up in landfill. The food we waste accounts for 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

In the United States alone, more than 35 million tons of food is sent to landfill each year where it produces methane as it rots. An average American family throws away about $1,500 of food into landfill each year.

There are many benefits to limiting food waste at home, like getting creative with leftovers, shopping with a list and buying less, no longer throwing out “expired” food, composting, and storing food properly so it lasts longer. Just don’t forget to use up those leftovers!

For a deeper dive into this topic, you can learn about all of the energy and water that is embedded in our current food systems and what we can do to be more resourceful in this PBS documentary Power Trip: The Story of Energy: Food.

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