This year, the United Nations is convening a special gathering to “raise awareness and elevate public discussion” about how food-system reform can help us to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. But the world needs much more than a food-systems summit. It needs a food revolution. With nature’s capacity to support human life having already reached a breaking point, changing what we put on our plates has become an urgent priority – one that will play a crucial role in determining the future living conditions on planet Earth.
The Food Revolution Is Up to Us
The Land Institute is developing new forms of perennial – rather than annual – staple food crops. Instead of having to sow their seeds every year, farmers will be able to harvest the same plant for four, five, or six years in a row. And because these perennial crops have root systems that run deeper than those of annual crops, they are more resilient and absorb more carbon in the soil. They also require much less diesel in the tractor.
Even if the world were to move to carbon-free energy sources tomorrow, the climate crisis still will not have been addressed, because industrial agriculture would continue to drive both planetary warming and biodiversity loss. A food-systems revolution is therefore past due.
Across G20 countries, the majority (60%) of people know that we must make a rapid transition to renewable energies this decade. Not only are the necessary technologies increasingly available and affordable; pressure from both civil society and the financial sector is growing. Yet only 41% of people recognize that we also need to transform our food systems in this decisive decade. This glaring gap in awareness shows that we need a wake-up call.
For decades, land-based ecosystems have been absorbing around 30% of excess carbon-dioxide emissions, protecting us from the worst climate shocks. But over the last 50 years, we have obliterated at least half of these natural assets. When forests, for example, are destroyed for industrial food production, they do not just stop absorbing CO2; they start emitting it. Assets that were contributing to the planet’s resilience suddenly become liabilities that are undermining it. This double-whammy is why food production now accounts for over one-third of global emissions.
We are tantalizingly close to being on track for a fossil-fuel-free future. But that achievement will mean little to future generations if we do not also transform our broken food system. Just as we are pushing fossil fuels into retirement (while thanking them for all they have done for us), so too must we phase out industrial agriculture.
Industrial agriculture was designed for the noble purpose of feeding a growing population. But it is no longer fit for that purpose. In addition to its massive contribution to global warming – which will cause more crop failures, driving up hunger – the current system results in massive levels of food waste, the monopolization of seeds (which leaves smallholder farmers at the mercy of multinational corporations), the degradation of once-fertile soils, poisoned waterways, and catastrophic biodiversity loss. All this amounts to an injustice that we can no longer tolerate. Ultimately, if we fail nature, we fail on climate, and we fail ourselves.
Many people recognize that we are approaching dangerous climatic tipping points, and most – 82% across G20 countries – want change that protects nature. So, let’s show them what that would look like. This year’s Food Systems Summit is an opportunity to build momentum in some of the biggest priority areas of food-system reform. For example, we urgently need to make regenerative farming the dominant model globally. This form of agriculture relies on farming and grazing practices that nurture the soil, rather than killing it.