The food industry needs to act now to cut greenhouse gas emissions (opinion)

Torri Donley

As UN Secretary General António Guterres recently declared, the actions we take and the solutions we identify to combat climate change over the next decade will be critical. Yet, no organization can drive change alone. © Zack Frank/Shutterstock Black Hills. To secure a thriving food system for future generations, the […]

As UN Secretary General António Guterres recently declared, the actions we take and the solutions we identify to combat climate change over the next decade will be critical. Yet, no organization can drive change alone.

a herd of cattle grazing on a lush green field: Black Hills.

© Zack Frank/Shutterstock
Black Hills.

To secure a thriving food system for future generations, the food industry has a significant opportunity — and responsibility — to collectively help mitigate the impact of climate change and find more sustainable ways to feed people.


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It’s no surprise that growing, processing, packaging and distributing enough food to feed billions of people takes considerable energy and resources. According to scientists at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, nearly 24% of greenhouse gases produced by humans annually can be tied back to our global food system and deforestation.

Reducing emissions at scale has to be the food industry’s number one priority. But it’s only part of the solution. Our approaches to agriculture, forestry and land use hold the potential for some of the most important solutions to climate change. Given that emissions can be pulled out of the atmosphere by soils, forests and oceans, it’s critical that we protect these natural ecosystems and invest in food production and agricultural practices that can help restore nature by increasing biodiversity to actively capture carbon through soils and vegetation.

These actions matter because the health and prosperity of people around the world is negatively impacted by climate change — directly through extreme weather events, like the wildfires currently ravaging the western United States, or indirectly through changes in water and air quality, access to food or lifespans.

As a business leader with a responsibility for driving long-term sustainability and resiliency, I believe the most effective solutions will be those that are pragmatic and inclusive.

Advances in science, research, technology and industry collaboration have already started to uncover many diverse solutions that could propel change forward at scale. For example, farmer and rancher-led programs have shown that regenerative agriculture methods can have the potential to significantly mitigate climate change by capturing carbon in the soil, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing biodiversity of plants and wildlife.

According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), practices like regenerative cattle grazing can be an important tool in preserving grassland ecosystems. The idea is that grasslands must be grazed in order to remain healthy, and while species such as bison have historically played this role across the Northern Great Plains, today well-managed cattle could have the same impact. WWF has launched a Ranch Systems and Viability Planning network, which McDonald’s is backing along with Cargill and the Walmart Foundation, to help conserve the Northern Great Plains, one of the last remaining temperate grasslands in the world. The partnership will build local networks for ranchers across more than one million acres of Montana, Nebraska and South Dakota, helping to leverage existing rich local knowledge and supplement it with additional tools, training and technical assistance to scale-up regenerative practices.

One of the most promising findings is that regenerative practices don’t just benefit the environment, they can also benefit communities, including farmers and producers. Innovative approaches to land-use and soil health, such as cover cropping, reduced tillage and diversified crop rotations, can improve farm efficiency, production, profits and long-term resilience.

In Nebraska, a five-year, $8.5 million project is being spearheaded to work with farmers to advance proven soil health practices across 100,000 acres of land. This work is key as Nebraska is one of the top states for US beef production and among the top three states for corn production, a key ingredient for cattle feed. What’s exciting is a project like this has the potential to sequester 150,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide over the course of the project — equivalent to removing over 32,000 cars from the road in one year.

The biggest challenge is scaling all of this. Because supply chains are so vast — and the challenge of climate change is so immense — multi-stakeholder platforms and industry-wide collaborations become much more important. Establishing partnerships and initiatives can be transformational in terms of global reach and scale — far outweighing what one corporation can achieve alone. It’s also vital we listen to and learn from the experts — in this case, our producers around the world who are already making a positive environmental impact.

Of course, the only way to truly implement widespread sustainable change is to drive positive social, economic and environmental benefits for everyone. This is even more urgent because producers and communities in general have been facing significant pressure due to the Covid-19 pandemic. We need to take shared responsibility — from corporations to governments — for empowering, incentivizing and supporting meaningful action.

The year of 2020 has been an incredibly difficult one, but it has also heightened the importance of pressing forward with climate action across our industry. There is no single roadmap for success, but one thing is certain: Together we must take bold action in order to truly scale solutions across the industry to make the innovative practices of today commonplace tomorrow. Only then can we ensure the long-term resilience of our food system and our planet.

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