Reversing Global Warming Through Our Food Choices – Forbes
As we rang in 2019, a new type of food meme was making the rounds: calculators to measure the carbon footprint of our diets. With the benefit of new reports, books and the ongoing work of key organizations, we are more aware than ever that what we put on our forks has a profound impact on global warming.
I chatted about this phenomenon with Chad Frischmann, Vice President and Research Director at Project Drawdown. Chad’s team published a compendium of 100 solutions for drawing down greenhouse gas, and found that food and land solutions represent 12 of the top 20 most impactful opportunities. Chad recently gave a TED talk on these findings. I asked him how our food choices could open solutions to climate change.
Lorin Fries: Could you describe Project Drawdown?
This approach is encapsulated in our book, Drawdown. But Project Drawdown is more than just a book; it’s a growing collaborative movement of individuals and organizations who are actively working to reverse global warming. Our core mission is to reach one billion people, and to make drawdown an organizing principle for all sectors and across society as quickly, safely, and equitably as possible.
Fries: Drawdown received widespread attention. What does it seek to achieve, and what are its key findings?
Frischmann: The book sought to capture the wealth of information we have on existing solutions, and to make this accessible to a broader audience. Complicated graphs and technical references underpin the book, but we wanted to present something empowering and engaging that any reader could pick up – whether a student, retired teacher, policymaker or farmer – and find solutions that are meaningful to who they are and what they are able to do.
The book also enables an “apples to apples” comparison of technologies and practices, both for financials and for the potential emissions reductions or sequestration potential. That hadn’t really been done before. So, you could look at renewable energy systems next to land use, or food systems, or women’s empowerment, or buildings and transportation — all in the same book. In this way, it presents a holistic view of how we can change the way we do business and reverse global warming.
Fries: How does food feature in your analysis of drawdown opportunities?
Frischmann: What surprised us was that the global food system is the sector with highest potential to reduce emissions and sequester carbon. Of the top 20 solutions, 8 relate to food. By comparison, if we look at electricity generation – which is what most people think of when they consider climate solutions – we find only 5 of the top 20 solutions. That means that the decisions each of us take about what we consume, waste and produce may be the most significant contributions we can make to reversing global warming. That’s a real shocker. It transforms how we think about climate solutions.
Another interesting finding is that degraded land features in 4 of the top 20 solutions. When we combine food and land management, which are interrelated, they comprise 12 of the top 20 solutions for reversing global warming. Our research shows that we could produce enough food on current farmland to feed the world’s growing population a healthy, nutrient-rich diet from now until 2050, and beyond – without cutting down any forests.
Fries: Could you share a few of the top drawdown solutions related to food?
Frischmann: I’ll start with what we produce. Modern agriculture is a net emitter of greenhouse gases, because it promotes tillage, releasing stored soil organic carbon; it uses monocropping, which doesn’t provide for the replenishment of soil; and it relies on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, which require a tremendous amount of energy to produce. In contrast, take regenerative agriculture, which is one of the top drawdown solutions. It produces soil organic carbon, which increases nutrients in and fertility of the soil, thus making it more productive and improving water retention. And because of the reduced use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, it’s financially beneficial. So, it’s a win-win-win-win-win-win.
What we consume also has a large impact on global warming. Everything that gets produced has emissions embodied in it – every bite of meat, bottle of oil, or can of tomatoes — and what we consume has different levels of those emissions. Meat production, for example, is emissions-intensive all the way from production through storage, to the market. We wanted to show how a healthy diet can help reduce our consumption, particularly of meat, to healthy levels. That’s why a transition to plant-rich diets is one of our top solutions.
Another key solution is reducing food waste, which ranks as the third highest solution for drawdown. About 8 percent of global greenhouse gases result from food waste. At the same time, millions of people are starving. In high-income countries, most food is wasted at the end of the chain, in markets and by consumers. And when food gets thrown away, it usually goes into a landfill, which produces methane — a greenhouse gas that’s 36 times more potent than carbon dioxide. That’s why we need behavior change: we need to purchase less and consume what we buy.
Fries: What do you recommend to readers who want to make more climate-friendly food choices?
Frischmann: Educate yourself; for instance, check out our website. Think about your purchasing power, especially in countries like the United States. I’m predicting there will be a wave of regenerative products coming into the marketplace, just like we saw with the organic movement; consumers making conscious decisions will propel that shift. Consider eating less meat, especially beef. Try using smaller plates. Be conscious about going to restaurants, and bring leftovers home for an additional meal, saving emissions and money at the same time. It’s not that hard to have a profound impact on the future.
Fries: What’s next for Project Drawdown?
Frischmann: We will continue to research solutions, to provide usable decision support tools, to communicate the science and possibility of a future we want in a clear and accessible way, and to support solution implementation through collaborations around the world. Our mission is nothing less than to achieve drawdown.
This interview is part of a series on how technology and innovation are transforming food and ecological systems – and how to get it right for people and planet. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.