Food production uses up half of the Earth’s habitable land, and is responsible for nearly a third of global heat-trapping emissions. These emissions come from the growing, processing, transporting, storing, cooking, and disposing of the foods we eat every day, and in the wake of a climate crisis that requires a breadth of bold solutions, emissions from the food cannot be ignored. About six to eight percent of human-caused emissions could be eliminated if we stopped wasting food, and additional changes to agriculture could significantly reduce the carbon footprint of our food.
For this month’s SCPN Deep Dive webinar, we were joined by four experts in the field of food policy to discuss how U.S. states can tackle agricultural greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions at the state level. Amy Brown, the Director of Food and Agriculture Program at NRDC, discussed the enormous carbon footprint of our food system and the tools we have to mitigate this environmental impact. Professor Ariel Ardura, from Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic, discussed which policies can reduce food waste. From The Good Food Institute, Emily Hennessee discussed the environmental impacts of animal agriculture, and what a transition to alternative proteins could look like. Finally, Peter Ruddock, California Policy and Implementation Director of the COOK Alliance and a Steering Committee Member of the California Food Policy Council, discussed the climate benefits of regenerative agriculture, and the progress California has made in this space.
Amy Brown, Natural Resources Defense Council
Amy Brown, the Director of Food and Agriculture Program at NRDC, kicked off our presentations with an introduction to our food system and its major climate and environmental impacts. Her team at NRDC focuses on transforming the food system to be healthy, sustainable, and equitable for all stakeholders. They do this by advocating for policies at all levels of government, litigating, running corporate campaigns, and engaging NRDC’s three million members to build public pressure.
The most recent IPCC report confirms that, in order to avoid the worst outcomes from a warming planet, we must move quickly to limit the rise in average global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. President Biden’s goals of 50 percent emissions reduction by 2030 and net-zero by 2050 for the United States will require the involvement of nearly every area of the economy, and if we are serious about meeting these targets, food must be part of the game plan.
There are four key areas of change related to the food system that can act as levers in this transition: fossil fuel impacts, soil health, less and better meat, and food waste. The first big issue, fossil fuel impacts, addresses industrial agriculture’s use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, which are fossil fuel-derived chemicals that are extremely energy-intensive to produce. The alternative, organic farming, does not use fossil fuel-based chemicals while also supporting biodiversity, helping farmworkers, providing health benefits for consumers, and allowing a market premium for growers.
The next issue, soil health, involves increasing carbon sequestration through healthy soils. Carbon sequestration is a natural process through which soil, plants, and forests store carbon. When soil is depleted of nutrients — a result of overuse, monocropping, or chemical impacts — it loses its ability to hold carbon, exacerbating climate change. Healthy soils, however, through pulling carbon out of the atmosphere, can actually function as a natural climate solution. Some mechanisms to improve soil health are planting cover crops, using compost, and practicing rotational grazing. Improving soil health through these and other ways can have a serious climate impact — the National Academy of Sciences estimates that agricultural soils could sequester the same amount of climate pollution as generated by 64 coal-fired power plants a year.
The third issue, less and better meat, focuses on shifting menus away from the current quantity and quality of meat. Cows and other ruminants produce a large amount of methane, a greenhouse gas 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide in the first twenty years of its release. Animal agriculture at a large scale also relies on major amounts of feed, which is often produced with fossil fuel inputs and industrial techniques that destroy soil health. The U.N. estimates that livestock alone contributes 15 percent of GHG emissions globally. Eating less meat would definitely have major climate impacts, but regeneratively-raised meat also provides a potential solution. This can occur when animals graze on land where crops will be grown, acting as natural fertilizers that improve soil health and enhance carbon sequestration.
The fourth issue, food waste, tackles reducing the current amount of wasted food, which is an astonishing 40 percent of all food produced in the United States. This food waste produces GHG emissions from growing, processing, cooling, and transporting a product that will never be eaten, along with additional methane production caused by food decomposition in landfills. Globally, experts estimate that food waste accounts for at least eight percent of GHG emissions.
There are many state policy solutions to tackle these issues. Farm solutions include banning the use of toxic pesticides, as California has taken many steps toward; reforming crop insurance programs to reward climate-friendly practices; supporting the transition to organic farming through technical assistance, business planning, and help receiving organic certification; and engaging new and diverse farmers, especially Black, Indigenous, and other farmers of color, as well as a new generation of farmers interested in regenerative agriculture.
Market and community policy solutions are also possible through leveraging the broader food system to promote a climate-friendly approach to food and farming. This includes investing in local and regional infrastructure, such as slaughterhouses for sustainable ranchers, wholesale food hubs, local farmer’s markets, and urban gardens; expanding access to organic and sustainably-produced food for consumers; leveraging public procurement of organic and sustainably-sourced food through farm-to-school programs, direct government purchasing, or reimbursements for food purchases (one great tool for assisting with public procurement is the Good Food Purchasing Program); and developing concrete food waste reduction goals such as food waste bans like New York, Massachusetts, and Vermont.
Alongside the concrete aspects of these policy options to create climate solutions from our food system, creating a broad and powerful coalition is also extremely important. Everybody cares about food, including farmers, farm and food workers, rural and urban communities, and advocates for food access, health, and the environment. Each of these stakeholders can and should be involved in sustainable food policy to create both short-term policy wins and lasting change to our systems.
Ariel Ardura, Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic
Ariel Ardura is an attorney and Senior Clinical Fellow focusing on domestic food waste at Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic (FLPC). FLPC provides legal and policy advice to nonprofits, government agencies, entrepreneurs, and other organizations on food policy, as well as education for students on the role of law and policy in the food system. Their work spans across many aspects of food policy but especially focuses on reducing food waste.
In 2019, 35 percent of food produced in the United States was unsold or uneaten, the vast majority — 54 million tons — of which became food waste rotting in landfills or in the field, or burned in incinerators. This food waste composes 14 percent of all freshwater use, 18 percent of all cropland use, and 24 percent landfill inputs, while producing four percent of all U.S. GHG emissions.
Addressing food waste is a triple-bottom line opportunity. It helps people, as recovering just 30 percent of wasted food could feed all food insecure Americans. It helps the planet, as a 20 percent reduction in food waste could save 1.6 trillion gallons of water and avoid 18 million tons of GHGs annually. Lastly, it also helps profit, as a 20 percent reduction in food waste could generate 15,000 new jobs and $1.9 million in annual business profit.
FLPC published a report in 2016 called Keeping Food Out of the Landfill, which is a toolkit for policymakers and advocates interested in using law and policy to reduce food waste. The toolkit covers multiple major policy areas, but for this presentation, Ardura focused on three of the eight, specifically food waste reduction in K-12 schools, organic waste bans and waste recycling laws, and government support for food waste reduction.
Food waste reduction in K-12 schools is an extremely important focus of food waste law and policy, as the logistics of serving school meals and the requirements of different national school meals programs lead to a lot of food waste. Tackling this sphere can help reduce food waste by also helping school budgets and teaching children about the need to treat food as a valuable resource. Recommendations in this area are numerous, starting with simply reducing food waste at the source. This includes lengthening school meal times, which has been proven to reduce waste, especially at or beyond 30 minutes; encouraging students to only take the food they will eat, such as through banning trays or implementing an offer versus serve model; and conducting food waste audits to track how much food is being wasted. If food waste cannot be prevented, recovering uneaten food is another toolkit recommendation. This can be done through creating ‘share tables’ to allow unopened food from one student to be taken by another student or donating to food banks or local food pantries. These options are allowed and encouraged by the USDA, but schools often run into issues with state law, so providing support and guidance at the state level is necessary. The last recommendation area in this section of the toolkit is recycling food waste through composting rather than sending it to landfill, which states can support by providing schools with guidance on composting or funding for composting programs, as Connecticut has done.
Another area of focus in the toolkit is on organic waste bans and waste recycling laws, which offer an effective way to encourage entities to reduce food waste and divert this waste from landfills, such as through composting. Organic waste bans prohibit regulated entities from dumping waste in landfills while allowing the entity to decide their own alternative action, whether that be composting, donating, sending to anaerobic digestion, or other options. Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Vermont all have organic waste ban laws in place. Waste recycling laws, on the other hand, require entities to take specific action with their waste, such as composting, donating, or other actions. California and Washington, D.C. have waste recycling laws in place.
The last area of focus discussed by Ardura was government support for food waste reduction, as major barriers are the cost of building and maintaining food waste programs and infrastructure and the lack of widespread information on food waste reduction, both of which state governments can play a major role in. Governments can provide funding for food recovery or food waste reduction through direct funding or grant programs as well as provide public education on food waste reduction through the creation of online resources, trainings, and other avenues.
Emily Hennessee, The Good Food Institute
Emily Hennessee is a Policy Associate at the The Good Food Institute (GFI), an international nonprofit developing the roadmap for a sustainable, secure, and just protein supply, focusing on science and technology, corporate engagement, and policy. GFI is looking to address the issue of needing to feed approximately ten billion people by 2050 in a sustainable, efficient, and safe manner, and they believe that one of the major solutions is accelerating alternative proteins — meat, eggs, and dairy products made from plants, fermentation technology, or cultivation from animal cell culture.
The environmental benefits from alternative proteins span many areas, as Hennessee demonstrated through a series of life-cycle analyses centered on alternative protein operations at scale. Alternative proteins are clearly beneficial for mitigating climate change; in terms of GHGs, plant-based meat reduces emissions by 99 percent for beef, 92 percent for pork, and 86 percent for chicken; cultivated meat from a renewable energy-powered facility reduces emissions by 92 percent for beef, 52 percent for pork, and 17 percent for chicken. For cultivation, the major source of emissions is from electricity in the facilities, so powering these facilities with renewable energy is incredibly important and can really reduce GHG emissions as compared to conventional meat production. Despite this potential, compared to other climate technology such as electric vehicles and renewable energy, there is a major under-investment in alternative proteins. Securing public funding for alternative protein research and development is a major policy priority in this area. This year, Minnesota became the first state to introduce bipartisan legislation to fund alternative protein research and development, although the bill did not pass this session.
Alternative proteins also have major benefits for land use. Today’s protein production systems are the single largest anthropogenic use of land and are inherently inefficient. Protein systems which include grazing and feed crop production uses over 80 percent of all agricultural land while only providing 37 percent of the global protein supply and 18 percent of the global calorie supply. Animal agriculture is also a leading cause of global deforestation, adversely impacting the climate as well as biodiversity. Plant-based meat reduces land use by 99 percent for beef, and 97 percent for pork and chicken, and cultivated meat reduces land use by 95 percent for beef, 72 percent for pork, and 63 percent for chicken. The resultant freed up land could be used for reforestation, regenerative agriculture practices, natural climate solutions, renewable energy production, biodiversity support, and many other beneficial practices.
Alternative proteins have substantial potential for improving water use as well. Animal agriculture uses large fractions of water – 29 percent of the average global consumer’s water footprint is from meat and milk products. However, it also leads to disproportionate water contamination – livestock and poultry from the largest farms in the U.S. produce 13 times as much waste as the entire U.S. population. These hazards lead to aquatic dead zones and are expected to grow worse with climate change. Plant-based meat reduces water use by 99 percent for beef, 95 percent for pork, and 96 percent for chicken, and cultivated meat reduces water use by 78 percent for beef while using a similar or slightly higher amount of water for pork and chicken. As the cultivated meat industry scales up, however, water use is expected to become much more efficient.
The last major beneficial impact of alternative proteins is on biodiversity. Overexploitation, including overfishing, and agriculture are the top two drivers of species loss globally, and agriculture is the dominant driver of habitat loss. Alternative protein can help avoid these harmful impacts, and biodiversity can also be part of the alternative protein solution. Native plant species can be used as inputs for alternative protein, helping to promote forest conservation and boost local economic development while sustainably enhancing food products.
To learn more about GFI’s alternative protein work, sign up for GFI’s monthly policy newsletter, read more on the climate connections of alternative proteins, or dive deeper into the life cycle analysis of cultivated meat.
Peter Ruddock, COOK Alliance and the California Food Policy Council
Peter Ruddock, California Policy and Implementation Director of the COOK Alliance and a Steering Committee Member of the California Food Policy Council, discussed some of California’s laws on land use incentives and priorities and how they can tie into regenerative agriculture. At the core of regenerative agriculture lies a holistic approach to land practices that is not just sustainable, which involves keeping it just about as good as it needs to be, but is truly regenerative, which means making it better than it was before. These practices improve soil carbon sequestration, water retention, and various other benefits for the land.
The major law Peter focused on is AB 434, regarding grazing leases on public lands. It provides preference to those using public lands for grazing to a farmer or rancher who is socially disadvantaged, limited-resource, or other identities, and it requires that they create a state-approved management plan. While it does not currently mention regenerative agriculture, it is a great example of a law that has the potential to include provisions to encourage or require regenerative agriculture.
From the varying perspectives of each of our panelists, it is clear that while our food system is currently a major contributor to climate change, it can also be a major solution. State-level policy can play a major role in this, from supporting organic farming and regenerative agriculture to setting food waste reduction goals to investing in alternative proteins. Food policy encompasses a variety of spheres and stakeholders, and as such, it is important not only to pass any food policy, but to pass multifaceted and equitable food policy that provides short-term wins and long-term solutions.