Why a Plant Based Food System is Essential to Combat Climate Change

Why a Plant Based Food System is Essential to Combat Climate Change

This week, another eye-opening report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made headlines, drawing our collective attention to the dire realities of our climate crisis and tactics we can use to turn the ship around—including some serious shifts within our food system. The latest report from Working Group III, which is the final contribution to their Sixth Assessment Report, makes it extremely clear that the targets laid out in the Paris Agreement to keep warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius—2.7 degrees Fahrenheit—are farther and farther out of reach due to collective inaction. 

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres did not mince words in his message about the lack of action from world leaders to make good on climate promises: “We are on a fast track to climate disaster: Major cities underwater. Unprecedented heat waves. Terrifying storms. Widespread water shortages. The extinction of a million species of plants and animals. This is not fiction or exaggeration.”

To stabilize warming at the 2.7 degrees F threshold, global greenhouse gas emissions need to be reduced by 43% by 2030, with methane emissions reduced by 33%. In addition to calling for rapid shifts to renewable energy and ending funding for coal and fossil fuel infrastructure, the report cites conserving forests and ecosystems, in addition to shifting agricultural and land-use practices, as vital to meeting targets in a holistic manner. 

Our Current Food System is Unsustainable

Fifty-seven percent of emissions from all food production come from raising animals for meat and dairy in addition to growing crops for feed. Industrial animal agriculture also uses a majority of land and freshwater resources. Clearing land to make room for cattle grazing or growing crops for livestock feed is one of the largest causes of deforestation and biodiversity loss—and to make matters worse–industrial animal agriculture is a leading driver of ocean dead zones, air and water pollution, and public health crises like antibiotic resistance and zoonotic diseases. These broadscale issues are well-documented, and yet, industrial animal agriculture rarely receives the same critical attention as the fossil fuel industry. 

Authors of the latest IPCC report make clear that shifting away from industrial animal agriculture is a key component of meeting climate change targets—while also providing myriad benefits for overall ecosystem resilience. “Reduction of excess meat consumption is amongst the most effective measures to mitigate GHG emissions, with high potential for the environment, health, food security, biodiversity, and animal welfare co-benefits,” stated the report. Further, IPES-Food member Lim Li Ching highlighted the blatant inequities of our current food system in an interview with Food Navigator, stating, “continuing agribusiness as usual is enriching a small minority at the expense of the climate, biodiversity, and the world’s poorest people and farmers who did the least to cause the problems.”

Benefits of Plant-Based

As this latest IPCC report makes clear, the food system plays a vital and interconnected role in our path toward a sustainable and resilient future. Not only is climate change making it more difficult to grow food worldwide, but it is abundantly clear that industrial animal agriculture is driving rampant and largely unchecked environmental destruction—while also failing to feed the world’s population in a resilient and sustainable manner. 

Our food system’s current reality is something that we are all too familiar with here at the Plant Based Foods Association and Institute: Global greenhouse gas emissions from animal-based foods are nearly twice that of plant-based foods, and shifting toward plant-based diets can not only play a role in curtailing emissions, but can also re-allocate crops and arable land to feed people instead of livestock, alleviate growing resource inequities, and eliminate the suffering of animals in factory farms. The plant-based foods industry represents an opportunity to innovate and optimize the way we feed the world for the benefit of all. 

As the IPCC report highlights, demand for plant-based foods is growing: Our 2021 retail sales data shows 62%, or 79 million, U.S. households are now buying plant-based products and consumers are motivated to purchase foods that align with their values and limit their impact on the environment. However, broadscale adoption of plant-based foods and diets needs to be supported by robust government policies and education initiatives that target the shifting of lifestyles and behaviors, including promoting plant-based diets over animal-based meat, dairy, and egg consumption and building infrastructure to make plant-based options more accessible. 

It’s Time for Food Systems Change

As the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-FOOD) latest report “The Politics of Protein” illustrates, it is not enough to simply look at replacing animal-based protein with plant-based alternatives. Rather, it is imperative that we dig deeper to create holistic change in our food system to address critical opportunities to benefit people, the planet, and animals at every step along the supply network. 

“The decisions we make now hold grave bearing over the future viability of our planet,” said Rachel Dreskin, CEO of PBFA and the Institute. “It is essential that we assess the food system from a holistic standpoint, prioritizing health, the environment, and social justice to ensure we are not replacing one exploitative system with another.”

As “The Politics of Protein” highlights, we cannot look at alternatives to industrial animal agriculture solely through the lens of greenhouse gas emissions; we must also consider biodiversity, conservation efforts, and respect the nuanced needs of different regions in the world. Rapidly-escalating efforts to meet the protein demands of developed nations, primarily in the Global North, have led to the proliferation of industrial animal agriculture, and education and action are needed to shift the dialogue away from protein and towards a food system that is anchored in resilience, drive displacement of harmful industrial animal agriculture, and prioritize the cultivation of crops for direct human consumption over livestock feed. 

“Our vision is to drive a global shift to a plant-based food system that is rooted in respect for the land, promotes biodiversity, and illustrates how values and business interests can align to create a food system that truly benefits all,” Rachel continued. “This is not a far-off dream, we are laying the groundwork by creating partnerships between American farmers and plant-based food companies, collaborating with domestic and global policymakers to create a coalition of plant-based allies, and building an inclusive community that values the diverse perspectives and interests of the people, communities, economies, and ecosystems that comprise a thriving plant-based foods industry.”

As we consider the strategies that will help us meet the goals outlined by the IPCC, we will continue to work alongside the plant-based foods industry and agricultural stakeholders to ensure the potential of plant-based is realized. Despite the harrowing projections and unsettling statistics, there is reason for hope. By assessing the environmental impact of plant-based foods, conducting comprehensive life cycle analyses, constantly evolving and growing with emerging technologies, and reconnecting with indigenous sustainable, regenerative farming practices that enable us to limit negative impacts and amplify benefits, and empowering stakeholders at every level,  we can build the food system current and future generations deserve. 

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