How food and agriculture can help reach climate and sustainability goals
Agriculture and food systems can make an important contribution towards European and global climate and sustainability goals. The necessary measures will need to be designed carefully to maximise synergies between emissions reductions, biodiversity protection and food security. These involve substantial changes for agriculture and food production in the EU, which – depending on how they are designed – could bring about synergies but also conflicts with the goal of global food security.
The EU aims to be climate neutral by 2050 – this is the central goal defining Europe’s contribution to global climate action and a more sustainable and stable future. Stability is key for global food security. People are less resilient if they live in poverty. They are less able to respond to short-term economic or ecological changes and tend to be at risk of food insecurity if a crisis occurs. The fragility of the system became evident during the Covid-19 pandemic. Millions of people fell into poverty, only to be affected a short time later by high food prices resulting from Russia’s war of aggression on Ukraine. The Global Report on Food Crises 2023 reports that, particularly because of these two events in combination with weather extremes, millions of people were affected by hunger.
According to the FAO Food Price Index, prices are decreasing again and are currently (as of May 2023) more than 25 per cent below the previous year’s level. Nevertheless, the debate in the EU and in Germany has shifted. More attention is being paid to the conflicts between the goals of biodiversity, climate action, agricultural productivity, and food security. On the one hand, transformation of food and agriculture systems is central to achieving the sustainability goals. Without far-reaching changes in the food and agriculture sectors, the EU will achieve neither its biodiversity nor climate neutrality goals. On the other hand, however, the transformation of agriculture and food needs a systemic approach. The German and European agriculture and food system is directly and indirectly involved in international value chains and global land use. Changes in demand and supply have an impact on international prices, value chains, land-use systems and therefore also on income and food security in other regions of the world.
In this light, the EU should shape its approach to agriculture and food to ensure that it makes a substantial contribution to climate action and biodiversity protection, while retaining agricultural productivity. This is particularly important because agriculture plays a central role in the transformation toward a climate-neutral economy. Beyond the production of food and feed, the agriculture and forestry sector can contribute to carbon removals, by capturing carbon for instance in soil and trees. Biomass can replace fossil fuels in industry, thus becoming a part of the transformation toward climate neutrality for the industry and energy sectors. With new demand come new opportunities for the agriculture sector. In turn, however, this exacerbates conflicts with other global sustainability goals such as the human right to food or the protection of biodiversity. Efficient use of land will be crucial to bridging the different goals.
A look at Germany and its two most important climate measures in the agriculture sector – rewetting of peatlands and clearly reduced consumption and production of animal products – shows that biodiversity benefits can be combined with more efficient land use. In Germany, almost half of all emissions from agriculture and agricultural land use are attributed to animal husbandry. The transformation of animal husbandry, which has been debated in Germany for years, will therefore make an important contribution to mitigating climate change. However, changes in animal husbandry will only make a difference if they go hand in hand with a reduced consumption of animal products. A diet of more plant-based and less animal-based products is more beneficial to the climate. As two thirds of agricultural land in Germany is used to produce feed, a reduction in animal stocks would free arable area for other land use, such as to produce food or biomass or to protect biodiversity.
The second major climate measure in Germany and the EU is the rewetting of peatlands. About seven per cent of Germany’s total greenhouse gas emissions (around 40 per cent of emissions from agriculture and agricultural land use) are generated by drained peatland used for agriculture. Only a few generations ago, the draining of peatland made an important contribution to society in ensuring food security. The rewetting of peatlands should be a priority in our climate adaptation strategy. Although wet peatlands can only be used to grow food to a limited extent, the land can supply paludiculture with biomass such as bulrush and reed. These products therefore provide climate-friendly insulation materials for the construction industry for example.
These two measures alone would lead to a much more climate-friendly agriculture and food system not only in Germany, but the whole of the EU. They would additionally reduce pressure on agricultural land and thus have a positive impact on biodiversity. As demand for land and biomass will increase for various uses, it is important to include such synergies in our thinking – together with all the associated social, economic, and ecological opportunities as well as challenges.
In political terms, what’s important today at EU and national level, is to set the right course for an agriculture and food system that is aligned with social goals and the various dimensions of sustainability. Providing appropriate incentives is a basic requirement. In the future, the use of biomass for energy generation should be considered only in a few exceptional cases. Solar plants and wind turbines are more efficient at supplying energy – including to the transport sector. To strengthen sustainable land use, the consumption of animal products in industrialised countries needs to reduce considerably. Moreover, food environments should be designed in a way that it is easier for consumers to choose a more plant-based and healthier diet. Finally, biodiversity must be protected in such a way that agricultural land remains productive. This involves more diversity in terms of what is being planted, from wildflower strips, to hedgerows, and a high level of crop diversity. While a complete removal of pesticides and mineral fertilisers is only desirable in some areas, their use should be significantly reduced. Scientific evidence on the necessary political measures transforming EU agriculture and food towards climate neutrality and sustainability lie before us – it’s time for implementation.