Climate Week: Agriculture, Food, and the Environment

 The Climate Action Summit of the UN Secretary General and the Global #WeekforFuture organized in response to youth activist Greta Thunberg both took place this week. It also marked the conclusion of Covering Climate Now, a reporting initiative led by the Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation aimed at strengthening the media’s focus on the climate crisis,” that has recruited nearly 200 news outlets from around the world to produce high quality journalism on climate change.

All of the attention on climate change this week has necessarily led to discussions of the environmental impact of global food production, distribution, and consumption practices.

Environmental Impact of the Food System

Globally, recent research by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shows that emissions produced across the entire food supply chain, from food production and processing to storage, transportation, and delivery, accounts for “21-37% of total net anthropogenic GHG emissions.”

Of the many greenhouse gas emitters across the food system that contribute to climate change, it’s not only agriculture but also food waste that helps to account for a significant percentage of greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations calculates that roughly one third of the global food supply is lost or wasted due to major inefficiencies that stress the entire food system. And Yale Climate Connections draws from research by the World Resources Institute to assert this staggering statistic: “If food waste were a country, it would be the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases behind China and the U.S.” 

In the United States alone, the US Department of Agriculture—drawing from statistics produced by the Environmental Protection Agency—estimates that agriculture accounts for about 10% of greenhouse gas emissions in the country. As a result, they call agriculture an “emissions-intensive sector” because the industry “accounted for 1 percent of U.S. production (in real gross value-added terms), but emitted 10 percent of U.S. GHGs in 2016.”

Promising Technological Solutions

Reducing the environmental footprint of the global food system to address climate change is a multi-faceted problem that requires multi-pronged solutions. 

EarthSense is developing “teachable robots” to automatically measure crop traits and use that data to make recommendations for applications of fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. As these robots learn over time, their advice becomes more accurate and therefore, more valuable. 

Precision tools that guide water use is another key ingredient for environmentally sustainable AgTech.  

Agrisource Data notes: “farms that utilize irrigation, over-irrigate by 30% or more leading to wasted water, energy and negative environmental impact.” The company’s “IntelliRoot” sensors allows farmers to remotely monitor soil moisture levels and prescribes water applications.

New Utah-based startup Mad Freight calls itself “Uber for freights.” It is essentially a community-driven delivery service that is applying lessons from the ridesharing industry to cut down on “food miles.” The platform enables individuals and businesses to post transportation needs to a common site and connects them with drivers who are already commuting on particular routes to deliver groceries, furniture, and other goods to their destination. 

Committed to preventing and reducing food waste in the restaurant industry, LeanPath is working with restaurants to collect data on meal items that end up in the trash. Their partnership with Google, which serves more than 200,000 meals a day across 55 countries, is one example of the dramatic impact of data-driven food waste systems. Kristen Rainey of Google’s Global Food Program says that the system has helped the company to “avoid 4 million pounds of food waste” since 2014. 

Toward a Sustainable Future

Agricultural and food technologies alone cannot solve the climate crisis, but they do have an important role to play in advancing sustainable solutions. Farms can limit runoff and reduce their environmental footprints by minimizing runoff that can pollute nearby waterways. Automated irrigation systems can help to save water and protect this vital natural resource. Optimized delivery routes and logistics are a critical way to prevent empty one-way trips and bring down the environmental and economic costs of transportation. The digital food system of the future is one key ingredient to taking action on climate change and advancing sustainable development. 

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