Why the “F-Word” Should Be Part of Every Climate Conversation


Cattle graze among trees in Goias, Brazil. (Photo credit: Erich Sacco / iStock)

I used to mutter the F-word under my breath in international climate change discussions. Policymakers didn’t want to hear that food was a major cause of global warming and planetary destruction.

But last year something changed.

At the UN’s COP28 summit, more than 150 countries pledged to incorporate food and agriculture into their national plans to tackle climate change.

This was long-overdue. We’ve known for years that the food system – the collective term for how we produce, distribute, and consume food globally – is responsible for around one-third of greenhouse gas emissions. Whether from raising cattle, clearing forests for farmland, or fertilizer production and use, many roads lead back to food.

Even so, the food system is huge, complex, and almost 8 billion people depend on it for survival. For some, it was too risky to tamper with. Food became the F-word many dared not speak.

With food now in the spotlight, we can get on with the job of making the food system more sustainable.

To do this, first we need to move beyond polarized debates about, for example, whether or not to eat meat, or whether to prioritize organic produce. These discussions are important, but I believe the future of the food discussion is about inclusion on a global scale. 

Instead of “either-or,” we should be saying “yes, and”: Yes, we need meat, and we need plant- or insect-based proteins for whoever wants them; yes, we need local farmers serving their communities with organic food, and we need globalized supply chains moving large volumes of food around the world – and we need everything in between.

A “yes, and” approach plays to the strengths of a food system that is large and diverse enough to accommodate all the food choices of different cultures, dietary preferences, palates, and budgets. By including rather than excluding certain foods or groups of people, we can ensure maximum participation in a more sustainable future.

Next, we need to innovate, from developing new food products to reimagining the way we farm. Thankfully, the food system is already abuzz with creative thinking – some of which I’ve witnessed first-hand.

One was at a dairy farm near my home in Colombia, where cattle graze plots of grassland interspersed with trees. The trees provide shade and capture carbon dioxide, and some fix atmospheric nitrogen, helping improve soil fertility. When the grass is fully grazed the animals move to an adjacent plot, allowing the first plot to recover before being grazed again. It’s simple but effective: the animals produce high-quality organic milk, and – despite all the burping and farting (hello methane emissions!) – the farm has a negative greenhouse gas footprint.

I’ve also seen the work of researchers in the U.S. who are developing crops with dense root systems to capture carbon dioxide and lock it in the ground. Others are focusing on shade tolerant crops that remain productive while being grown out of the sun’s glare in a warming world. Others are producing “green” fertilizer by capturing plant nutrients from wastewater and air. These innovations bode well for a “yes, and” food system.

What we do next really matters. One of the jobs for people like me and the philanthropic organizations we work for is to provide the funding for scientists to develop and test these kinds of new approaches to food and farming. This can help send powerful signals to governments and private investors about where new opportunities might lie in the “yes, and” food system.

It’s taken years to arrive at the point where food is finally part of the climate change discussion. While countries update their national plans to reflect its importance, I’ll be making the case for a "yes, and" food system wherever I go. And for those I meet along the way who continue to dispute the importance of food, I might have a few “F”-words for them too.

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