Reaping What We Sow

Author:Nicoletta Batini
Position:NICOLETTA BATINI is a senior economist in the IMF's Independent Evaluation Office.

Smart changes to how we farm and eat can have a huge impact on our planet

30 FINANCE & DEVELOPMENT | December 2019
At last year’s World Economic Forum in
Davos, Switzerland, delegates spoke of a
“Great Energy Transformation” needed
to ensure a clean and secu re energy
future. No less urgent for the futu re of the planet is
what we might call a “Great Food Transformation.”
While the clim ate implications of burning fossil
fuels have received a great dea l of attention, recent
research by the UN ’s Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change (I PCC) shows that what we eat,
how we produce it, and how it gets to us exerts
an even greater impact on the globa l environment
and public health. Greening food production and
managing food dem and are crucial for meeting the
UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development
and the environmental pledge behind t he UN’s
Paris Agreement.
Hidden costs of food systems
For centuries, agricultu re was dominated by
family-owned farms raising diversied crops
and livestock. Today, in most Group of Twenty
advanced and emerging ma rket economies, crop
and animal a griculture has become heavily
industrializ ed and reliant on synthetic chemical
applications, genetic modication, and defor-
estation to produce growing amounts of meat,
dairy, and eggs, a s well as ber, timber, and bio-
fuels. At sea, hig h-tech techniques like sonar and
equipment like supertrawlers with mecha nized
nets make it possible to exploit deeper waters at
farther-ung locations and capture sh faster
than they ca n reproduce.
In low-income countries, poor farming and sh ing
practices, over-reliance on non-food crops, and cli-
matic extremes have put communities a nd biodiversity
at great risk. Land clearing leads to the dest ruction
of native forests, soil erosion, and poor har vests.
Local sh stocks are regula rly ransacked by global
commercial shing ves sels. Low sectoral productivity,
because of both rising temperatures and abnormal
weather events, constrain s both income and food
security, pushing many far mers and shers toward
poaching or charcoa l production to make ends meet.
As a result of all t hese transformations, the
agri-food sector now creates a quarter of huma n-
produced greenhouse ga s emissions— a share
expected to increase to a ha lf of all such emissions
by 2050—while another 8 percent of emissions
results from non-food agriculture a nd deforesta-
tion, according to the IPCC’s 2019 Special Report
on Climate Change and L and and the EAT-Lancet
Commission. (Chart 1). Cows and sheep, a major
source of meat and dair y, have an outsized impact
because they relea se methane, one of the most
potent greenhouse gases. Livestock account for
around 15 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases
each year, according to esti mates by the UN’s Food
and Agriculture Org anization. at roughly equals
the emissions from all the world’s cars, t rucks,
airplanes, and sh ips or, in country terms, from
China. Fires set in the A mazon rainforests and
Smart changes to how we farm and eat can have a huge impact on our planet
Nicoletta Batini
Reaping What We Sow
Sunrise over a cabbage field
near Chiang Mai, Thailand.

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