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Decarbonizing Our Food

Averting catastrophic climate scenarios requires that we phase out fossil fuels and transform food systems at the same time. A growing body of scientific research shows that the two challenges are not just equally urgent, but also mutually dependent.

BERKELEY – When political leaders, policymakers, environmental advocates, and philanthropists gather for this year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference in Dubai (COP28), food systems will be high on the agenda for the first time. Given that the food sector accounts for one-third of all greenhouse-gas emissions, its inclusion is long overdue.

But this welcome breakthrough risks being offset by the fact that COP28 is hosted by a petrostate, and presided over by the leader of that petrostate’s oil company. This is particularly concerning since averting catastrophic climate scenarios requires that we phase out fossil fuels and transform food systems with equal urgency.

Fortunately, these two challenges need not compete for our attention, because transforming food systems is also a powerful way to reduce our global dependency on fossil fuels. As our organization shows in a new report, Power Shift: Why We Need to Wean Our Industrial Food Systems Off Fossil Fuels, food systems, from farm to plate to landfill, account for at least 15% of annual global fossil-fuel use – equal to that of the European Union and Russia combined. And if the current approach to industrial food production continues, that figure is expected to increase significantly.

Today’s industrial food system is increasingly fossil fuel-intensive. Fossil fuels go into synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, as well as the plastics that are used in everything from the coatings for those pesticides and fertilizers to most food packaging. Moreover, most packaging is needed to store ultra-processed foods – from meat and dairy to sweets and sugary drinks – all of which require highly energy-intensive manufacturing and petrochemicals in the form of plastics.

Worryingly, the energy sector views the food system as a promising growth market. Food-related plastics and synthetic fertilizers account for approximately 40% of all petrochemical products, and the International Energy Agency predicts that petrochemicals will drive nearly half the growth in oil demand by 2050, outstripping sectors like aviation and shipping. Similarly, research from the Center for International Environmental Law has shown that fossil-fuel companies are banking on the expansion of these markets. The industry “is eyeing the food system,” CIEL’s Lisa Tostado told us, “from inputs like pesticides and fertilizers to production and processing, as a dangerous escape hatch.”

Finally, we’re also seeing a push to use more agricultural land for incredibly inefficient energy production. The United States already dedicates about 40% of its corn harvest to ethanol fuels, which are estimated to be “at least 24% more carbon-intensive than gasoline.”

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Given increased marketing of and demand for energy-intensive food, decoupling food production from fossil fuels is essential to meet our climate goals. Even if all governments delivered on their 2030 climate pledges, fossil-fuel use in the food system alone would consume our remaining 1.5° Celsius carbon budget by 2037.

Fortunately, there are many ways to phase out fossil fuels in food systems. These include strategies to end the use of fossil-fuel-based fertilizers and pesticides, and to move away from input-dependent crop-based energy systems like corn ethanol; shifting to renewable energy for processing, cooling, and drying food; supporting minimally processed, less energy-intensive foods and encouraging plant-rich diets; and encouraging the uptake of seasonal, locally grown food.

Shifting away from industrial methods toward more sustainable ways of farming not only would protect the planet. It also would create jobs, improve health, protect biodiversity, and help address the roots of hunger. Evidence from around the world shows that approaches like agroecology and regenerative agriculture are effective in driving a shift away from fossil-fuel dependency. With these strategies, yields remain steady or improve, while emissions fall, farmworkers’ health improves, and biodiversity is protected.

There is no technical barrier to shifting from dependence on synthetic inputs toward agroecological and regenerative food production, or to replacing fossil-fuel energy with renewable sources. But many governments offer very few subsidies to support these transitions, and many more incentivize business as usual. According to the OECD, every year between 2019 and 2021, public funds totaling $528 billion were channeled to agricultural and food-production practices that are generally bad for the climate, the environment, and human health.

Now that we have come to understand just how endemic fossil-fuel usage is across our economies, we must take pains to ensure that all sectors are included in the transition to a fossil-fuel-free future. Despite COP28’s dubious staging in a petrostate, we are pleased to see food finally taking center stage. But that discussion must not be isolated from the one about ending the use of fossil fuels as fast as possible. There will be no food-systems transformation without phasing out fossil fuels, and there will be no phasing out fossil fuels without food-systems transformation.