Improving Food Systems can Help Tackle Climate Change, Says Academic

By: Amy Cheng

Food is the single biggest culprit in the climate change we are seeing today, a food and health expert has said.

Professor Johannes le Coutre from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) has been researching food security and looking at ways to ease the agricultural burden on the environment.

“The way we drive our food systems is at the cost of climate and biodiversity; clearly it has a negative impact on the environment,” he said.

“Deforestation, monocultures (growing one type of a crop at a time) or importing large amounts of soy from South American countries into Australia to feed cattle and driving it in huge container cargo ships around the planet… is not the best idea.”

According to a new roadmap released by CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, Australia’s food systems need to change now to remain sustainable in the future.

The roadmap, Reshaping Australian Food Systems, includes input from more than 120 stakeholders across the country.

“Reshaping food systems in Australia requires collaboration, connection and mutual understanding across the vast and varied range of stakeholders within and adjacent to food systems, including industry, governments, and civil and research sectors,” the report said.

Five Areas of Opportunity

The roadmap identified five areas of opportunities, each with their own 2030 targets and 2050 goals:

Enabling equitable access to healthy and sustainable diets

Minimising waste and improving circularity

Facilitating Australia’s transition to net zero emissions

Aligning resilience with socioeconomic and environmental sustainability

Increasing value and productivity.

“By acting now, Australia has an opportunity to determine the trajectory of its food systems and provide leadership in the region,” the report said.

Food and the Planet

Professor le Coutre believes there is a link between food and planetary health.

“If you think of poor communities… villages, countries or cities, if people don’t have food, they don’t care about the environment.

“They start burning down forests to liberate land, they start to do all the things that are detrimental to our environment because food comes first; if you don’t have food today, you will be dead tomorrow.”

Unfortunately, there are many poor communities on this planet today that don’t have a choice, he said.

“If your only choice is to kill an animal to make some money, if your only choice is to deforest your neighbourhood to grow soy and if your only choice to survive… is not healthy to the planet, you will do this because you have no choice.”

Tackling Food Waste

On the flip side, having too much food is also not helping the environment, Professor le Coutre said.

Globally, approximately 14 per cent of the world’s food is lost every year, between the harvest and retail market, and an estimated 17 per cent is wasted at the retail and consumer levels, according to a report from the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.

“The real sad part of this whole story is that global food systems drive climate change and about 30 per cent of the food system-based climate change occurs because of food that is being wasted,” Professor le Coutre said.

Running Out of Sources

In 2050, the global population is expected to grow to 10 billion, which means there will be an extra two billion people to feed, Professor le Coutre said.

He believes there will not be enough food sources, such as livestock, to meet this demand.

“I like steak and the Australian food is spectacularly good; I’m Swiss and we have good food in Switzerland, but here in Australia it’s just amazing. But we all know… that there is a growing concern about the ways we’re handling and treating livestock… and it cannot be ignored that many people are moving towards a vegetarian or meat-free way of life.”

Alternative Food Sources

Professor le Coutre believes insects can be a viable alternative food source, however, it will take some convincing before most people will be comfortable with the idea.

“This ‘yuck factor’ is associated with several things – first, some consumers are disgusted by creepy crawlers, however, if you like crustaceans such as shrimps or prawns, you are basically eating water-based insects; biologically, they all belong to the same group called arthropods,” he said.

“Second, many people are afraid of spiders, however, insects are not spiders, so once you know this, then you can approach consumption of insects with a different mindset.”

Another alternative could be genetically modified food, which is a bit controversial at the moment, he said.

“It is heavily criticised often for the simple reason that there is no detectable human consumer benefit and largely the benefits go to the industry.

“You want to be able to find the benefit to consumers and once you have that and you’ve gone through the food safety and regulatory requirements and if there’s a clear benefit, you have a clear opportunity and option to improve the state of things.”

His team is currently doing research on cultured and cell-based meat as another alternative.

“We are seeing a bit of overselling and hype and unrealistic statements, so what we are trying to do is reality check and future-proof and bring it to the ground of reality.”

Article supplied with thanks to Hope Media.

Feature image: Photo by Jimmy Dean on Unsplash 

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