We need diet overhaul for human survival: Experts


The animals we keep for food and the crops we farm emit harmful gases, say researchers

Wednesday March 18 2020

With climate change emerging as the greatest threat to human existence currently, experts are now calling for a change of the food system and diets.

Experts argue that the current food system is contributing significantly to increased greenhouse gas (GHGs) emissions and, consequently, leading to drastic changes in the weather patterns.

It is these gases, which include methane, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide, that have been attributed to the melting of ice sheet in Greenland, resulting in flooding along coastal areas due to the rising oceans.

During a recent symposium in Nairobi, Carlo Fadda from Bioversity International said clearing forests to expand farms was aggravating the situation.

He argued that of the 3.3 million hectares of forest lost around the world per year, 80 per cent is cleared to make room for agriculture.

Unfortunately, when trees are cut, they release the carbon dioxide they hold to the atmosphere. In addition, less forest cover means there are not enough trees to absorb carbon dioxide.

According to scientists, deforestation of tropical rainforests contributes “more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than the sum total of all the cars and trucks on the world's roads”.

According to data from World Wide Fund for Nature, Kenya lost 824,115 hectares of forest (25 per cent of the total cover) between 1990 and 2015, meaning 33,000 hectares were being deforested every year. This, is in addition to the fact that agriculture itself causes emissions especially from livestock which produce methane, and fertilisers which produces nitrous oxide in farms.

World Resources Institute states that a research found that in 2011, farming was responsible for 13 per cent of total global emissions, or six billion tonnes of GHGs. Cattle and other ruminants contribute to 37 per cent of all methane emissions from human activity. The research, done by University of Adelaide said “a single cow on average produces between 70kg and 120kg of methane per year”.


Worldwide, there are about 1.5 billion cattle. “Livestock contribute 40 per cent of the global value of agricultural output and support the livelihoods and food security of almost 1.3 billion people,” says Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

According to FAO, livestock remains the world’s largest user of land resources, with grazing and cropland dedicated to the production of feed representing almost 80 per cent of all agricultural land. “Feed crops are grown in one-third of total cropland, while the total land area occupied by pasture is equivalent to 26 per cent of the ice-free terrestrial surface,” states FAO.

Stefano Bocchi from the University of Milan, Italy, said, crop yield is bound to decrease as climate change continues to trouble, stating that the current food system is the major driver of climate change.

Agricultural sector is the world’s second-largest emitter of GHGs, after the energy sector. “Animal production systems increase greenhouse gas emissions. There is a need to have sustainable diets. If we have to change something, it is the diet,” he said, adding that countries needed to have food policies.

Fadda said: “We need to have an agro-ecological transition, we need more concerted efforts at landscape scale (both political and technical). We need more biodiversity to support life.”

Despite expanded agriculture from millions of hectares of forests, at least two billion people suffer from micronutrient deficiencies while 795 million people are food insecure around the world, he said. “Over 20 developing countries have improved food security while maintaining or increasing forest cover,” he said.

According to Lorenzo Ciccarese, from the Italian Institute for Environmental Protection and Research, food security at the individual, household, national, regional and global levels may not be achieved without addressing food wastage, and without changing the global dietary trends.

The trends are neither sustainable or balanced, he said. “Transformational changes in the way food is produced, stored, processed, distributed and accessed is essential,” he said.