Let’s discuss food’s climate impact

More than any other economic sector, agriculture creates a divide between the world that emits for survival and the one that emits for luxury

By Sunita Narain
Published: Tuesday 05 September 2023

Illustration: Yogendra Anand / CSE

Illustration: Yogendra Anand / CSE

It all boils down to fuel and food. I am talking about the emissions that have “forced” the world’s climate to change, leading now to catastrophic events. While we discuss the contribution of the energy system—fossil fuels that emit long-living carbon dioxide—we don’t talk enough about the other elephant in the room; agriculture and the food we eat. This is because more than any other economic sector, agriculture creates a divide between the world that emits for survival and the one that emits for luxury.

In 2018, some 11 per cent of the global greenhouse gas emissions were from food the world produced; of this, the bulk of emissions (roughly 40 per cent) were from enteric fermentation in the digestive systems of ruminant livestock. Food-producing animals emit methane, which is a powerful greenhouse gas. Another 26 per cent of the agriculture-related emissions were nitrous oxide from livestock manure applied in fields or dumped. Synthetic fertilisers used on crops then added 13 per cent nitrous oxide and methane emissions from rice cultivation contributed 10 per cent of the total agriculture-related emissions.

The problem is that there are two distinct agricultural worlds. One, the industrial agriculture model where food is manufactured in factory farms; the size of animal holdings and the amounts of chemical inputs used to produce such food is massive. This intensive food farming system has an ownership pattern, which differs from the subsistence agriculture of the other world.

In this other world, farmers with small landholdings are engaged in growing food for their consumption or for their livelihood. It is the same for livestock—a few cattle or other animals kept in homestead farms. India, for instance, has the distinction of having the world’s largest livestock population which is also in the hands of very small farmers. Livestock contributes 25-50 per cent of an individual farmer’s income, according to official data. It is thus crucial for their economic security. That said, the overall emissions of the large numbers of cattle and other ruminants could be significant. According to the “2021 Third Biennial Report” of the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, methane emissions from enteric fermentation add up to 8 per cent of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions. What then is the answer for controlling methane emissions? And how will it differ from the other world’s actions?

This is the same when it comes to rice production in our world; it is grown by small farmers in areas of high rainfall, where the fields are also used for recharging groundwater. This is not to say that rice grown in water-scarce regions of our world, including in states like Punjab and Haryana, is ecologically sound. But we cannot discount the role of rice in nutrition and livelihood for millions in this (our) world.

And remember, as we discuss this, farmers are also the first victims of climate change impacts. In our world, it is a multifold crisis that threatens their very survival. First, the increasing cost of agricultural inputs and the lack of public infrastructure, including for irrigation, hits their livelihood. Second, increasing food costs are unaffordable to most consumers and governments step in to import food from intensive farming systems that are also invariably subsidised. Farmers lose out. Then third is the fact that farmers are being hit again and again by extreme weather events; their crops are lost to floods, droughts, pest attacks and unseasonal cold and heat.

We, therefore, need to discuss agriculture and climate change in the differing contexts of the two worlds. Currently, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is pussyfooting around the question of food. This is because it refuses to confront the beast of intensive food farming systems, which are also linked to the excessive eating of meat in the other world.

Of course, action is not easy. The Netherlands government learnt this when it decided to cut nitrous oxide emissions, which would require farmers to drastically reduce livestock, convert to green farms or shut down.

It led to widespread protests, which then contributed to the fall of the government a few months ago. New Zealand, where cows are highly productive and contribute almost half of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, has proposed a “burp” tax— farmers would have to pay based on the numbers of cattle and feed. But there is opposition as this would invariably lead to lower cattle numbers for farmers. So, the tax has been deferred and the country continues to count its emission reductions without factoring in the agriculture sector’s contribution. The meat question is equally touchy. The meat interests are as powerful as the fossil fuel industry, if not more so. But let’s at least accept that this is what is at stake.


This was first published in the 1-15 September, 2023 print edition of Down To Earth

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