Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Impact of food production and consumption on carbon emission-Why food is excluded from Paris agreement on climate change?

Ratification of the Paris Agreement on greenhouse emission by India recently was in the news and by this the country, which together with China and the US contribute more than 42% of carbon emission, has clearly committed itself to make conscious efforts to reduce the environmental degradation by suitable ameliorative actions and programs. It may be recalled that the Paris Agreement within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was aimed at dealing with greenhouse gases mitigation, adaptation and finance starting with the year 2020. 195 countries attending the 21st Conference of the Parties of UNFCCC in Paris on 12 December 2015 adopted by consensus agreement to be signed and ratified within an year. Accordingly 193 countries signed the Agreement on 22 nd April, 2016 in New York. This was followed by ratification of the same by 103 countries by November 4, 2016. A relevant question that was raised subsequent to the agreement was whether it will adversely impact on food security and health of people by taking proactive action on curbing greenhouse emissions through many means available to each country? 

It is not that food situation did not escape the notice of the delegates participating in the Paris Conference because food is a highly sensitive issue involving emotional factors and life and death of their citizens. Wisely the Agreement stipulated clearly that, though the aim of the Agreement was to strengthen the global response to climate change, such measures should be taken in a manner that does not threaten food production. But how can this can be done considering that the food production system globally account for more than 30% of the green gas emission each year? According to available data, food production and consumption involve an entire gamut of activities that include fertilizer production, food storage including low temperature warehousing and packaging. Many might not be aware that the field operations involved in food production emit a staggering 12,000 megatons of carbon dioxide equivalent every year while fertilizer industry contributes another 600 megatons. Added to this refrigeration system that is an integral part of the food chain generates about 500 megatons of carbon dioxide equivalent. Agriculture sector includes production of food grains, dairy products, horticulture produce, beef, poultry, mutton and pork. 

Looking from another angle what contribution each of the above food categories affect human health? While food grains are considered the most basic food for majority of the population across the world, for good health a mixed diet is a prerequisite. That implies man cannot live on food grains alone requiring in addition nutrient dense foods like meat, poultry, fish, dairy products, fruits, vegetables etc. After all getting 2000 to 2500 kCal alone cannot provide a healthy life and other sources that contribute quality proteins, essential fatty acids, vitamins and minerals and dietary fiber are as important as food grains for maintaining good health. Therefore any food production policy that will have to be dovetailed to the objective of greenhouse gas emission reduction will have to tread carefully in order not to adversely affect food and health security. Within the agricultural sector livestock raising accounts for highest emission and any plan to reduce emission will have to consider bringing down consumption of the products from live stock industry that produces beef, milk, mutton and pork. Is this possible when majority of global population is addicted to these products resisting any attempt to cut consumption of these foods with high carbon foot prints?  

While climate changes are definitely affecting adversely the health conditions of humans besides contributing large scale changes in the weather conditions and raising global temperatures across the world, food, both quality and quantity wise is influencing the quality of life and spread of diseases and disorders among the people. This poses a great challenge to the policy makers in orchestrating programmes and actions that strike a balance between climate changes and food production. According to some experts consumption of too much sugar, fat and animal based foods collectively contribute to spread of health afflictions like CVD, diabetes, kidney disorders, obesity and others while in economically poor countries limited availability of protective foods is causing stunted growth and health disorders like Kwashiorkor, Marasmus, Anaemia and other deficiency manifestations. Take the case of meat and meat products which if consumed in moderate quantities along with plant based foods can be expected to maintain normal growth and optimum health, same products when over consumed have opposite effect as is happening in rich countries like USA, Europe, Canada, Australia etc. Naturally any call to limit production of animal foods and their consumption can have a favorable impact on health as well as the environment but same measures will further deteriorate the restricted availability of such nutritious foods in developing and underdeveloped countries. Policy orchestration therefore will have to be dovetailed to the special needs of individual countries depending on their economic prosperity and purchasing power. Probably Paris Agreement has this factor in mind while formulating the final recommendations.

There has been some thinking about use of the economic tools to regulate over consumption of foods with high carbon footprints like meat and milk products. According to this concept there should be a Carbon Tax on high greenhouse gas emitting foods like beef which naturally will raise the consumer price very significantly, similar to the tobacco tax or alcohol tax, hopefully leading to reduced buying in the market place and lesser consumption progressively. Taxation as a disincentive was tried in the food and beverage sector in some countries with mixed results. Most notable is the "soda tax" which was tried out by some countries and while soda consumption did come down to some extent the result was not very significant or sustainable. The tiny state of Kerala in India is now trying out a "sugar tax" which is imposed on all foods containing more than 20% sugar. It is doubtful whether this will succeed to the extent anticipated. Sugar tax and Fat tax were thought of by countries like Denmark but fat tax has been discontinued while sugar tax is still in place. Globally sugar tax is becoming more and more common with countries like the UK, the US, South Africa, Norway, Denmark and France adopting this economic measure to cut down on sugar consumption. It is estimated that making a product 10% costlier can reduce consumption between 5 and 10 % and such a reduction could reduce incidence of diabetes significantly. 

According to some research data beef consumption can be brought down if it is made 40% costlier through levying appropriate taxes and making it that much costlier can be expected to change the buying habits of people to depress the market to the extent of at least 13%. Those buying meat twice a week are likely to change their buying mode to once a week. On a global level if such a reduction is achieved, green house gas emission is likely to be reduced to the extent of a billion tons besides saving half a million lives by 2020. Similarly increasing milk prices by 21% is supposed to reduce its consumption by 9%. A 15% costlier mutton can lead to 6% reduced purchase at the market place. If these projections are true developed countries have a ready route to achieve their carbon reduction targets through a taxation regime to make some of the foods implicated in obesity and other life style disorders significantly costlier. Of course this is more easily said than done considering how powerful is the food industry lobbies in these countries which have the eyes and ears of the law makers who have to take these baby steps to bring in sustainable results over a period of time.

Recent gas chamber like situation in Delhi where pollution reached extraordinarily high levels gives a peep into the difficulties India may face in achieving any seizable carbon emission reduction. Though there is a controversy regarding what factors were really responsible for such large build up of PM 10 ( 808 ug/m3) and PM 2.5 (622 ug/m3) in the atmosphere surrounding Delhi, agricultural activities in the states surrounding Delhi has definitely made substantial contribution to the misery of the people in the capital city. Two biggest grain producers in the country Punjab and Haryana lie just west of Delhi and after the harvest season farmers burn the stubbles routinely generating huge smoke that spreads to urban areas near these agricultural fields. No one knows how much pollution is added by this smoke to the prevailing in situ generated pollution caused by diesel vehicles and building industry. Open burning is banned in some states penalizing those who indulge in these practices but like all other laws this rule is widely ignored. Though there are grand announcements by the Central Government that farmers would be provided with better technologies to deal with post harvest residue management, one has to wait and see whether any thing is going to happen immediately.    

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