Food system

Image: Emre Can Acer


Ending deforestation is just the starting point for reducing agri-food emissions

The system that feeds us is also fueling the global climate crisis. The opening sentence of the excellent report that the World Bank has just released (Recipe for a Liveable Planet) reflects a scientific advance that increasingly marks the approach to contemporary problems by multilateral organizations.

Much more than studying the agricultural sector, the machinery and input industry, industrial transformation and consumption, the World Bank's work makes an assessment, a judgment of an ethical-normative nature about the way in which humanity is using material resources. , energetic and biotic to meet your dietary needs. This is the meaning and ambition embedded in the use of the expression “agri-food system” throughout the text.

In its introduction, the work recognizes that the “global food system has succeeded in feeding a growing population”, but then adds that it “has failed to promote optimal objectives with regard to nutrition and health”. Attention to the supply of calories and proteins was to the detriment of the production of healthy foods. The consequences on human health are expressed in the fact that, in the 21st century, six of the ten most important determinants of death and disease are linked to diet.

At the origin of these products are production practices whose ecosystem costs (estimated at US$20 trillion, in the report), if incorporated into the price system, would far exceed the value of global food itself. In other words, the world is destroying ecosystem services on which life itself depends to obtain a set of goods that, increasingly, are vectors of the diseases that kill the most today.

The World Bank's work starts from the difference, within the agri-food system, between high-income, middle-income and low-income countries. Of the ten countries with the highest agri-food emissions, seven are middle-income (China, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Russia, Pakistan and Argentina), two are high-income (USA and Canada) and one is low-income (Congo). The majority of emissions from the agri-food system come from middle-income countries (68% of the total). High-income countries account for 21% of agri-food emissions, but are the largest emitters per capita. And those with low income contribute only 11% of the total, but they are the ones where emissions grow the most.

Around 82% of emissions in low-income countries come from the agri-food system. Half of this total originates from forest destruction. In middle-income countries, deforestation accounts for 17% of agri-food emissions. China and India have almost no emissions from deforestation. The exceptions, in middle-income countries, are Brazil and Indonesia which, at the beginning of the third decade of the millennium, had deforestation for more than 50% of their total emissions, a pattern similar to low-income countries.

In Indonesia, deforestation has fallen dramatically. In the balance between the recent reduction in devastation in the Amazon, counterbalanced by the increase in the destruction of the Cerrado, it is still not possible to know whether this pattern continues in which Brazil has become the only one, among middle-income countries, in which half of the emissions come from of deforestation.

Deforestation alone accounts for 11% of global emissions. 90% of previously forested land is converted into crops or pastures. Between a quarter and a third of this deforestation is linked to just seven activities: cattle, palm oil, soy, cocoa, rubber, coffee and timber plantations. If the great challenge of the agri-food system was the increasing production of calories and proteins, perhaps this deforestation would be unavoidable.

If this is not the case, zero deforestation is a necessary condition and unparalleled opportunity for an agri-food system that reduces its emissions and contributes to regenerating biodiversity. According to the World Bank, one third of the opportunities to reduce emissions in the agri-food sector are concentrated in forest protection, management and regeneration. And there is no country with more favorable conditions to take advantage of this opportunity than Brazil, according to the World Bank.

But ending deforestation is just the starting point for reducing agri-food emissions. One of the most important revelations in the World Bank report is the growth in food emissions generated outside of specifically agricultural activities. Chemical fertilizers, the use of fossil fuels in agricultural machinery, but also industrialization, transport and energy used for cooking have doubled their emissions in the last thirty years.

The weight of non-agricultural food emissions already exceeds that of agricultural emissions globally. When Brazil stops deforestation this will be an important challenge, as it already is for China. And it is worth remembering that a growing part of this food industrialization is becoming ultra-processed products, vectors of the global obesity pandemic.

Another fundamental challenge lies in the emissions linked to the consumption of beef and milk, which represent a quarter of the agri-food sector's emissions and receive a third of global agricultural subsidies. Much of the world (including middle-income countries) consumes beef beyond what is necessary for human health.

The Brazilian presidency of the G20 has placed the fight against inequalities and hunger (along with combating the climate crisis and reforming global governance) as its central objectives. The World Bank's work shows that achieving these goals does not just mean expanding food production.

It is in Brazil that the agri-food sector has the best conditions to offer society products that benefit health and contribute to strengthening the ecosystem services on which we all depend. It is around this challenge that the on line, on June 12, a group of Brazilian and international experts within the scope of the G20 [Registration: here].

*Ricardo Abramovay is a professor at the Josué de Castro Chair at the Faculty of Public Health at USP. Author, among other books, of Infrastructure for Sustainable Development (Elephant). []

Originally published in the newspaper Economic value.

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