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From Degrowth to a Sustainable Food System Transformation

According to a new study, we need to transform the global food system in order to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“Just shrinking the size of our current food system won’t cut emissions much. Instead, we need to transform the very nature of that global food system,” says Benjamin Bodirsky, a researcher at Potsdam and the World Vegetable Center in Tainan, Taiwan, and author of a new study published in the journal Nature Food.

“That means on the one hand that people consume what they need in terms of nutritional requirements, curb food waste and eat a more balanced diet, with much more vegetables and less animal products. On the other hand, a qualitative transformation means more efficiency, hence producing food in a less-polluting way: smarter dosing of fertilizers or planting higher-yield crops. Also, carbon pricing could help steer farmers towards lower-emission agricultural practices, because emitting less then means paying less. Put together, this could drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

The way we produce food and manage our land is responsible for up to a third of global greenhouse gas emissions along the entire supply chain. “So we looked at what this system would look like in a hypothetical degrowth world: On the basis of a review of degrowth proposals, we created a set of scenarios to feed into a food and land systems computer simulation to explore their effect on the food system,” David Chen, a researcher at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and author of the study, explains. “We took a step back from the heated normative debates about degrowth. What we found is that the current food system is basically unsustainable for any society, regardless of economic growth rates.”

The simulations show that simply slowing growth in rich countries would not yield sizable sustainability benefits in the food system. Financial transfers from higher- to lower-income countries within the current development paradigm may even increase emissions. That is because carbon-intensive diet changes towards animal products and processed foods are most pronounced when countries progress from low to medium incomes.

However, when the scientists included consumption changes and efficiency gains incentivized by a price on carbon, the results showed an improved nutritional outcome for all consumers, lower greenhouse gas emissions, and, as a result, also less economic activity in agriculture required for food production. “For the food sector, we can say that a certain degree of degrowth would be the result of the sustainable transformation, not the starting point,” says Hermann Lotze-Campen, co-author from the Potsdam Institute. “So basically this is not really about less but about different growth.”

Importantly, a sustainable food system transformation that takes into account all costs for the environment would entail a slight increase in food prices – felt especially by the poor, the scientists show. Any transformation hence must be accompanied by a well-thought-out policy mix of smart taxing schemes, social compensation for CO2 pricing, and international transfers. Also, making agriculture more climate-friendly, such as by controlling nitrogen flows in croplands, requires investment. These costs, however, are likely offset by the restoration of ecosystem services.

Reference: “Integrating degrowth and efficiency perspectives to enable an emission-neutral food system” 16 May 2022, Nature Food.
DOI: 10.1038/s43016-022-00500-3

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