#ActOnClimate with Food and Agriculture

By Ariel Kagan, GW Sustainability Collaborative & Food Institute Senior Program Associate

Image courtesy of Pexels.

Like many I’m sure, it was not shocking to see that President Trump had withdrawn the US from the Paris Climate Agreement.  He promised to do so throughout his campaign, and he has now fulfilled the promise, despite many companies like Unilever, Tiffany & Co., and Morgan Stanley calling to keep the US in the Paris Agreement.

Here at GW we fully support the Paris Climate Agreement.  In 2015 we hosted over 100 college students to hold simulated negotiations of the Paris Conference of Parties (COP) meetings, and we sent a delegation from GW to observe the negotiations as they happened.  We also offer a course each fall called Climate Change and Policy which is team taught by our Director, Kathleen Merrigan, and the team of experts from the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES). We practice what we teach and have reduced our greenhouse gas emissions by 28% by investing in solar farms through a power purchase agreement with Duke Energy Renewables. Climate change is an urgent and pressing issue and we’re proud of the steps we’ve taken to contribute to solutions.

The Paris Agreement was different from previous intergovernmental agreements (like the Kyoto Protocol or the Montreal Protocol) in that countries agreed to bring their own commitments, called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), to the table. This meant that each country could find the right strategy and methods, but that collectively all countries would agree to do something.

The US INDC included a reduction in emissions by 28% over 2005 levels by 2025. 195 other nations also brought their INDCs to Paris to be included in the accords. Beyond the nations that made these commitments, an additional 12,549 Non-State Actors also made commitments, including 2,508 cities, 2,138 companies and nearly 500 investors. These commitments will not go away just because the US as a country withdraws from the agreement.

In food and agriculture there are lots of things going on that are helping to sequester carbon and fight climate change:

Soil carbon sequestration

Sequestering carbon into the soil through cover crops, reforestation, and no-till agriculture has the potential to reduce our atmospheric carbon levels and regenerate soil health simultaneously.  According to the International Union of Soil Sciences, it’s possible to store 75-100 parts per million of CO2 in soil through responsible management. The Center for Food Safety has launched the Soil Solutions program, which includes resources and guides for how to be a soil steward.

There is support for farmers to implement cover crops like rye, winter wheat, or oats. One program under USDA, called the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), provides cost-sharing support for farmers to implement cover crops, among many other things. This will be up for discussion in the next round of the Farm Bill. Make sure your representative knows why cover crops are important to you!

Methane digesters on livestock farms

If you’ve ever felt a twinge of climate change related guilt when ordering a double cheese burger, then you should definitely know about methane digesters. Though not as…appetizing… methane digesters are critically important in reducing methane emissions (up to 84 times more harmful than CO2!) from livestock agriculture. Methane digesters take the waste from cows and pigs and convert the gasses into energy that can be used on the farm or can be put on to the energy grid. More farmers are seeing methane digesters as a good way to earn additional income from a resource they already have, and are working with states, USDA, EPA, and private energy firms to finance the projects.

Bio-based food packaging

Food packaging is a complicated subject—on the one hand it helps to keep food better for longer, reducing food spoilage; on the other hand, most food packaging is single use and it’s often made of plastic film which in most places is still not recyclable. But there are a lot of companies already working on making their food packaging more sustainable by using bio-based (made from plants, not petroleum) sources, and ensuring that their packaging is biodegradable or fully recyclable. Mars Incorporated is going to start making their Snickers bars wrappers out of wasted potato material, and Danone and Nestle are working to develop a bio-based plastic water bottle from waste materials like used cardboard and sawdust. These efforts reduce the plastics in our waste stream and our reliance on fossil fuels to make those plastics. We’ll be looking into the issues of food packaging in more depth during our upcoming sustainability symposium—stay tuned!

Preventing food from being wasted

Wasted food is a problem on many levels. In the US, 52 million tons of food are wasted each year, and it’s more than just the food—it’s also the land, water, fertilizer and labor that goes into growing the food that is wasted. When food ends up in a landfill, it creates methane, that potent greenhouse gas we mentioned earlier. The global methane contributions of food waste make it the equivalent of the third-largest country in the world in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, after the US and China. More municipalities are looking into composting at a city level, and businesses are working to reduce waste in their supply chains through standardized labeling, packaging adjustments, and increased donations to food banks. You can tell your congressional representative that wasted food is an important issue to you — Representative Chellie Pingree is working on a bipartisan Food Recovery Act that would clarify sell-by dates and give tax deductions to farmers and retailers for donating food to food banks.

We at the GW Food Institute will continue to advance research on vital sustainability-related issues and provide students with opportunities to learn about climate change and food systems from an interdisciplinary perspective. So while it is not a great day for climate action, we know that there are still many ways to reduce our emissions and improve our planet—and not solely because of the Paris Agreement, but because it’s the right thing to do. These initiatives are common sense, and provide a win for farmers, businesses, and households, as well as a win for the climate and environment.