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Eating better – for us and the planet

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Industrialized farming has been a reliable way to produce lots of food, at a relatively low cost. But it’s not the bargain it was once believed to be. Unsustainable agriculture can pollute water, air and soil; is a source of greenhouse gas; and destroys wildlife – an environmental cost equivalent to about US$3 trillion every year. The use of chemicals and antimicrobials can have adverse health effects and lead to resistant infections. And to top it all off, our production and consumption habits have been linked to the emergence of zoonotic diseases, such as COVID-19.

To mark World Food Day on 16 October, we take a closer look at sustainable agriculture – how it can help reduce our environmental footprint, improve our health and even create jobs.

What exactly is sustainable agriculture?

It is farming that meets the needs of existing and future generations, while also ensuring profitability, environmental health and social and economic equity. It favours techniques that emulate nature–to preserve soil fertility, prevent water pollution and protect biodiversity. It is also a way to support the achievement of global objectives, like the Sustainable Development Goals and Zero Hunger.

Does sustainable agriculture really make a difference to the environment?

Yes. It uses up to 56 per cent less energy per unit of crops produced, creates 64 per cent fewer greenhouse gas emissions per hectare and supports greater levels of biodiversity than conventional farming.

Why does sustainably produced food seem more expensive?

It may be more costly because it is more labour-intensive. It is often certified in a way that requires it to be separated from conventional foods during processing and transport. The costs associated with marketing and distribution of relatively small volumes of product are often comparatively high. And, sometimes, the supply of certain sustainably produced foods is limited.

Why are some foods so much more affordable–even when they require processing and packaging?

The heavy use of chemicals, medicines and genetic modification allows some foods to be produced cheaply and in reliably high volumes, so the retail price tag may be lower. But this is deceiving because it does not reflect the costs of environmental damage or the price of healthcare that is required to treat diet-related diseases. Ultra-processed foods are often high in energy and low in nutrients and may contribute to the development of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some forms of cancer. This is particularly concerning amid the COVID-19 pandemic; the disease is especially risky for those with pre-existing health problems.

Do we all have to be vegan?

No. But most of us should eat less animal protein. Livestock production is a major cause of climate change and in most parts of the world, people already consume more animal-sourced food than is healthy. But even small dietary shifts can have a positive impact. The average person consumes 100 grams of meat daily.  Reducing that by 10 grams could improve human health while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

Is sustainable agriculture possible in developing countries?

Yes. Because sustainably produced food is typically more labour-intensive than conventionally made food, it has the potential to create 30 per cent more jobs. And because it can command higher prices, it can also generate more money for farmers.

Is it possible to make sustainably produced food that is affordable for everyone?

Yes. As demand for certain foods increases, the costs associated with production, processing, distribution and marketing will drop, which should make them less expensive for consumers.  Policymakers can also play a role, facilitating market access and leveling the financial and regulatory playing field.

If it is so important, why hasn’t sustainable farming been adopted as a global standard?

There is a lack of understanding of the way that agriculture, the environment and human health intersect. Policymakers do not typically consider nature as a form of capital, so legislation is not designed to prevent pollution and other kinds of environmental degradation. And consumers may not realize how their dietary choices affect the environment or even their own health. In the absence of either legal obligations or consumer demand, there is little incentive for producers to change their approach.

What are some ways to consume food more sustainably?

Diversify your diet and cook more meals at home. Eat more plant-based foods; enjoy pulses, peas, beans and chickpeas as sources of protein. Eat local, seasonal foods. Purchase sustainably produced foods and learn more about farming practices and labeling. Avoid excessive packaging, which is likely to end up as landfill. Don’t waste food: eliminating food waste could reduce global carbon emissions by 8-10 per cent. Cultivate your own garden, even if it is a small one in your kitchen. Support organizations, policies and projects that promote sustainable food systems. And discuss the importance of healthy and sustainable foods with producers, vendors, policymakers, friends and family.

UN Environment

Environment

In Jamaica, farmers struggle to contend with a changing climate

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Althea Spencer harvests her tomato crop. Dwindling rainfall in central Jamaica has made farming a challenge. Photo: UNEP / Thomas Gordon-Martin

It’s 9 am and the rural district of Mount Airy in central Jamaica is already sweltering. As cars trundle along the region’s unpaved roads, chocolate-brown dust clouds burst from behind their back wheels. 

It is here, 50km west of Kingston and 500 meters above sea level, that the Mount Airy Farmers group are having a morning meeting. There are around two dozen people and they all say the same thing; they’re struggling to keep their plots productive amid dwindling rainfall, a byproduct of climate change.

“The weather here’s a lot drier for longer these days,” says Althea Spencer, the treasurer of the Mount Airy Farmers group, which is based in Northern Clarendon. “If  you don’t have water, it makes no sense to plant seeds because they will just die.”

The farmers though, have recently gotten some help in their search for water.

Just meters from where they are gathered stands a two-storey shed with a drainpipe on the roof that funnels rainwater into a tall, black tank. It’s one of more than two dozen reservoirs dotted across these mountains. They are part of a project backed by six United Nations (UN) bodies to help Mount Airy’s farmers adapt to climate change.

“This partnership among the UN and with communities is exactly the type of activity needed to address the day-to-day and practical impacts of climate change,” says Vincent Sweeney, Head of the Caribbean Sub-Regional Office at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). “As we look beyond the Glasgow Climate Change Conference, it is vital that we… adapt to the new realities of a warmer planet in order to protect lives and livelihoods in Jamaica and the Caribbean.”

The challenge is not unique to the region. Droughts, floods, and the spread of pests, the byproducts of climate change, are threatening agricultural production around the globe, says the Food and Agriculture Organization. That is potentially disastrous in a world where almost 700 million people go hungry each year.

Small-hold farmers, who work more than 80 per cent of the world‘s farms, in particular, will need support to remain resilient in the face of climate change, say experts.

A country at risk

Farmers in Jamaica, an island nation of 3 million, are especially vulnerable. In 2020, Jamaica became the first Caribbean country to submit a tougher climate action plan to the UN because the country was at risk from rising sea levels, drought and more intense hurricanes, its government said.

In 2018, the Mount Airy farmers enrolled in the United Nations-backed programme that helps build the resilience of communities to threats such as climate change, poverty and water insecurity. It is regarded as the first joint programme of the United Nations  in Jamaica, combining the resources of six agencies, including UNEP.

In Mount Airy, the UN programme has invested in 30 new water harvesting systems. The large, black tanks, which appear across the hilltops like turrets, catch and store rainfall, allowing the farmers to use it evenly via a drip irrigation system. This reduces the emerging threat of longer and more intense dry spells.

The new irrigation system also frees farmers from watering their crops by hand. “Before we got the new system, you had to predict rainfall to put seedlings in,” says Spencer, a rollerball pen tucked neatly into her hair and her feet shifting on the sunbaked earth. “It feels pretty good. It allows me more time to do housework, keep up with my farm records, and I have time to go down to the market.” 

Alongside the tanks sit drums which mix fertilizer with water and spread it evenly among the crops, saving the farmers valuable time. The dissolvable fertilizer is also cheaper than standard fertilizers.

On top of that, the irrigation system improves yields. Spencer now grows and sells more sweet potatoes, peppers and tomatoes than ever before.  

Coupled with the water tanks, the programme has also prioritized education. Seminars are run by the Rural Agricultural Development Authority, a government agency, which aims to broaden the farmer’s knowledge and skills. 

Although it is not unusual for women to farm these lands, Spencer speaks about how the trainings have helped to empower the female members of the group by coming together. “To me, the learnings and the trainings bond us ladies together,” she says. 

A life in the mountains

Back at the gathering of the Mount Airy farmers, the assembled say some prayers and repeat their mantra aloud two times: “We are the Mount Airy Farmers Group our motto is: All grow in fear and failure bearing fruits of confidence and success.”

Spencer, who is in her 40s, is a vocal participant at the meeting and obviously well-liked. She was born in Mount Airy and has been farming these fields most of her life. She has vivid memories of working on her father’s farm as a child. Unable to afford to pay anyone else, he often pulled her out of school to sow and reap the fields.

That’s a common refrain among many who grew up in Mount Airy – and one the new UN programme is aiming to change. 

“If my father had this harvesting system, would I have gone to school more?” Spencer asks herself. “Yes, probably. But even then, he was always working us. So I’m sure he’d find something for us to do,” she says laughing. 

Spencer welcomes the introduction of the water tanks. However, she says current rainfall patterns mean water sometimes still runs out. “If you don’t manage your water properly, one will run out before you get anywhere,” she says ominously.

Her story may be one of success today, but it shows that living with climate change will require adaptation and continued investment for years to come. UNEP’s 2021 Adaptation Gap Report called for an urgent increase in financing for climate adaptation. It found that adaptation costs in developing countries are five to ten times greater than current public adaptation finance flows, and the adaptation finance gap is widening.

UNEP

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Environment

Climate change: For 25th year in a row, Greenland ice sheet shrinks

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2021 marked the 25th year in a row in which the key Greenland ice sheet lost more mass during the melting season, than it gained during the winter, according to a new UN-endorsed report issued on Friday. 

The data from the Danish Arctic monitoring service Polar Portal – which forms part of the UN weather agency WMO’s annual State of the Climate report – shows that early summer was cold and wet, with unusually heavy and late snowfall in June, which delayed the onset of the melting season. 

After that, however, a heatwave at the end of July, led to a considerable loss of ice. 

In terms of “total mass balance” (the sum of surface melting and loss of ice chunks from icebergs, in addition to the melting of glacier “tongues” in contact with seawater), the ice sheet lost around 166 billion tonnes during the 12-month period ending in August 2021. 

Climate change 

These numbers mean the ice sheet ended the season with a net surface mass balance of approximately 396 billion tonnes, making it the 28th lowest level recorded, in the 41-year time series.  

This could be considered an average year, but Polar Report notes how perspectives have changed, due to rapidly advancing climate change. 

At the end of the 1990s, for example, these same figures would have been regarded as a year with a very low surface mass balance. 

The report also notes that the cause of the early summer chill, could be due to conditions over southwest Canada and the northwest United States. 

In these territories, an enormous “blocking” high pressure system was formed, shaped like the Greek capital letter Omega (Ω). 

This flow pattern occurs regularly in the troposphere, and not just over North America, but it had never been observed with such strength before. 

According to the report, an analysis by World Weather Attribution demonstrated that it could only be explained as a result of atmospheric warming caused by human activity. 

Notable year 

According to the report, 2021 was notable for several reasons. 

It was the year in which precipitation at Summit Station, which is located at the top of the ice sheet at an altitude of 3,200 metres above sea level, was registered in the form of rain. 

The year also saw an acceleration of the loss of ice at the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier, where the rate of loss had otherwise been stagnant for several years. 

Winter snowfall was also close to average for the period between 1981 and 2010, which was good news, because a combination of low winter snowfall and a warm summer can result in very large losses of ice, as was the case in 2019. 

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Environment

2022: Emergency mode for the environment

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As the new year gets underway, the world continues to grapple with a number of familiar challenges – the continued COVID-19 pandemic, resurgent wildfires, enduring crises of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste. Yet, 2022 could prove to be a seminal year for the environment, with high-level events and conferences scheduled, which are hoped to re-energize international cooperation and collective action.

The coming year will also mark two golden jubilees. In 1972, the world took up the environmental mantle at the historic UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm. The meeting firmly placed the environment on the priority list of governments, civil society, businesses and policymakers, recognizing the inextricable links between the planet, human well-being and economic growth. Now, fifty years later, the Stockholm+50 meeting in June 2022 will commemorate the event, reflect upon half a century of global environmental action and look forward.

The Stockholm Conference also birthed the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the UN entity mandated to monitor the state of the environment, inform policymaking with science and galvanize action. For fifty years since, UNEP has used its convening power and rigorous scientific research to coordinate a global effort to tackle environmental challenges. A series of activities will mark UNEP’s 50th anniversary this year.

UNEP is going into 2022 with a new “Medium-Term Strategy” featuring seven interlinked subprogrammes for action: Climate Action, Chemicals and Pollutions Action, Nature Action, Science Policy, Environmental Governance, Finance and Economic Transformations and Digital Transformations. The strategy was agreed at 2021’s fifth session of the UN Environment Assembly; the resumed session, known as UNEA 5.2 will take place in February 2022. Under the overarching theme of ‘Strengthening Actions for Nature to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals’, discussions will highlight the pivotal role of nature in social, economic and environmental sustainable development.

June will be a busy month on the environmental calendar. On the 5th, the world will come together to celebrate World Environment Day. Led by UNEP and held annually since 1974, the day has grown to be the largest global platform for environmental outreach, with millions of people engaging to protect the planet. This year’s event will be hosted by Sweden, under the campaign slogan “Only One Earth“, with a focus on living sustainably in harmony with nature.  

While this timeline of environmental achievements is proof of what can be achieved through multilateral action, the science remains irrefutable. Unsustainable patterns of consumption and production are fuelling the triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste. UN Secretary-General António Guterres has warned that the triple crisis is humanity’s number one existential threat.

Several global events in 2022 aim to encourage dialogue and influence policy decisions to address the triple crisis. These include a post-2020 global biodiversity framework, which will be adopted in May at COP 15, and could stave off the extinction of over one million species, and the UN Ocean Conference in July, which seeks to protect one of our most vital ecosystems. A detailed list of related events is available on the UN web site.

Last year, the UN Secretary-General reminded the world that “We are at a crossroads, with consequential choices before us. It can go either way: breakdown or breakthrough.”

Experts hope that 2022 will be a year of breakthroughs for the environment.

UNEP

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