Our food and agriculture system was part of the conversation at the international climate negotiations (COP26) that just wrapped up in Glasgow, Scotland — an important issue to address considering food-related emissions represent 33% of global greenhouse gases and without it we can’t reach global targets of less than 1.5°C warming.
The food system is unique in that it is both a large contributor to greenhouse gasses driving climate change and is profoundly impacted by the resulting droughts, floods, heat events, pollinator impacts, yield reductions which are leading to food insecurity, disrupted supply chains, and threats to the viability of our small and mid-scale farmer and ranchers.
The good news is that the same food system levers we need to pull to address climate change will also be good for our health — and the health sector is well positioned to make a measurable impact.
#1 Less meat, more plants
Livestock production is responsible for approximately 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, reducing meat from our diets and increasing plant-based foods is a validated health-promoting strategy. Plant-forward is the most delicious “quadruple” bottom line approach that health care can take — achieving social, environmental, and financial goals while providing great-tasting food.
According to 2020 reporting, 81% of Practice Greenhealth network of health care partners are currently working to reduce the amount of meat and poultry that they purchase and serve, 49% are increasing plant-forward options.
#2 Protecting soil health
Petroleum-based farm inputs are another direct driver of climate change. Nitrogen-based fertilizers and pesticides generate nitrous oxide in production and use — which has a global warming potential approximately 300 times that of carbon dioxide. And their use alongside other industrial agriculture practices degrades the health of our soil — impacting its ability to store or sequester carbon, and its ability to hold moisture, making it less drought tolerant. Supporting agricultural production practices that eliminate these inputs, such as organic and regenerative practices, can protect and restore the health of our soils and reduce harmful exposures to farmworkers and eaters.
According to 2020 reporting, 72% of Practice Greenhealth network of health care partners are focusing on purchasing from sustainable and regenerative farms and food businesses.
#3 Food waste recovery
The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “Climate Change and Land” estimates that loss and waste of food caused between 8 and 10% of the greenhouse gasses responsible for global warming in the period 2010–2016. According to the United Nations, it is estimated one-third of all the food produced in the world is wasted — and in the United States, less than 3% of wasted food is recovered (e.g., to feed people or animals) or composted, and the remainder is sent to landfills or incinerated. Addressing this issue through source reduction strategies and food recovery and donation strategies can reduce climate impacts, save a food service money through better planning of food use, and help to provide nutritious food to communities in need.
According to 2020 reporting, 78% of Practice Greenhealth network of health care partners are reducing food waste, 28% are reducing food waste through food recovery and donation, and 42% are exploring ways to divert food waste from the landfill or incineration through composting, anaerobic digestion and other innovative mechanisms.
Policy & health care leaders: A climate strategy dream team
Policy actions taken by the Biden administration have the potential to incentivise and support the health care sector in being part of the solution. The United States announced their commitment to the COP26 Health Programme, which will engage the sector in helping to address climate mitigation, adaptation and resilience through its operations.
Health Care Without Harm and Practice Greenhealth are excited to support our network of innovators and advocates who are ready to take action.