The holidays remind us of the cultural power of food: nothing connects loved ones together the way a shared meal can. That is, of course, until talking about sensitive issues spoils the party. This holiday season, Latin Americans and Caribbeans gather to celebrate religious milestones (including a world cup!) just as global leaders have enacted a framework to protect biodiversity. Some may find themselves discussing the environmental impact of the food we eat with their in-laws. We hope this does not happen to you. But just in case, two recent IDB publications provide some facts about the impact of food on deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions, what we stand to win if we improve the food system, why it is difficult to do so, and how governments can make progress.
The treasures we must preserve
First, a word on what is at stake. The region is home to 40% of the world’s biodiversity: jaguars, toucans, sloths, whale sharks, colibris, and most penguins can only be found around here. They strive in our amazing ecosystems: we manage to pack a third of the planet’s freshwater and almost half its tropical forests in 14% of the global land area. The region is also home to delicious foods. We make tacos, mole, Caribbean seafood, rice and beans, arepas, pan de yuca, ceviche, sopaipilla, empanadas, over-cheesy pizzas, and our own take on the Italian gelato – not forgetting our mezcals, rums, wines, piscos and beers – some of us drink them with straws!
Now to the less rosy part. Way too many Latinos still go hungry – COVID and the Russian war in Ukraine have made this worse recently. Hunger adds to three longer-term threats. First, malnutrition. We consume too much sugar and fatty red meats but not enough veggies and fiber. Second, climate change. It brings droughts, unsuitable heat, and crop failures. And third, biodiversity loss. It has already taken over 90% of the vertebrate population in the region.
But the region can beat these challenges. This year, world leaders have reaffirmed their objectives of reaching net-zero emissions of greenhouse gases by around 2050 and preserving biodiversity by transforming 30% of land and oceans into protected areas by 2030. And the good news is that we know how to preserve food systems, and conserve and restore the ecosystems they depend on, while creating 15 million net new jobs for the region, providing healthier diets, and celebrating our region.
Food does not magically appear on our plates
Changing the food system is essential to reaching biodiversity and climate change goals. In Latin America and the Caribbean, agriculture causes 25% of emissions, mainly from methane from cattle used for meat and dairy and nitrous oxide from fertilizers and manure. Fertilizers also pollute water and soils and damage wildlife. And pesticides are also an issue. They are designed to eliminate crop-eating insects, but they are too effective: insect populations are collapsing, threatening birds and mammals who feed on them. Bees are famous pollinizers; we need them to make fruits and vegetables!
Halting deforestation is as important. Another 21% of emissions come from land use changes: we destroy carbon- and biodiversity-rich forests and wetlands to expand crops and pastures that hold only a fraction of the carbon and sustain virtually no wildlife. Within agriculture, beef plays a disproportionate role. In the region, beef is responsible for 57% of agriculture emissions and 58% of deforestation while only contributing 12% of protein and 4% of calories.
Current trends are not sustainable. An IDB study estimates that, by 2050 population and income growth will boost demand for food in general and beef in particular. This will increase emissions by 45% and perpetuate deforestation.
Three basic ingredients for better food systems
What should we change, then? The specifics depend on the local context, but in general countries can consider three important ingredients.
Modernize farming practices. Yields determine how much land you need to satisfy demand. There is room to progress, as yields in the region are a fraction of what they are in the US or Europe. Modernizing also means using nature-based solutions. Planting legumes, shrubs that happen to fix nitrogen from the air back into the soil, can reduce the need to use polluting fertilizers. And savvy farmers can combine crops to multiply benefits: planting trees on top of pastures or coffee provides shade while capturing carbon, and some herbs are effective pesticides.
Choose what we eat. Let’s face it: eating less beef is the most effective food choice to conserve biodiversity and carbon. Beef emits up to 10 times more greenhouse gases per gram than chicken or pork, and 100 times more than most veggies. That is because cows are ruminants and emit methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Beef is also the leading cause of deforestation: we dedicate 80% of agriculture land globally to pastures and crops like soybeans to feed beef. Nobody is suggesting banning beef! But it’s important that we are conscious about the choices we have and their implications.
Reduce food waste. It is difficult to count, but up to 30% of food produced is lost before reaching costumers or wasted by households. We could go a long way if we improve transport infrastructure to maintain the cold chain, build resilience against natural disasters such as droughts, and somehow get people to finish their plates and eat what’s in the fridge already.
Governments need to transform pledges into action
Governments have a key role to play in enabling the transition to a better food system. An important step is to reform food subsidies. Half a trillion dollars is spent globally to subsidize food every year, but the evidence is that a very large chunk of it goes to support beef and rice, two of the most polluting foods, and subsidies incentivize overusing fertilizers, land, and water.
Communication, capacity building, and education are also important. In school and public canteens, for instance, it could be easier to skip beef, or go vegetarian altogether. More generally, governments can educate their people about the environmental impact and nutritional benefits of different foods. Building the skillset of farmers is also essential to help them adopt new practices.
These are only examples of what governments can do: reforming the food system is a complex task. And to put an end to the environmental crises, countries will also need to rethink transport, energy, buildings, and industry. The opportunity is better quality of life, stronger growth, and job creation. Learn more by reading our report on 15 transformations toward net-zero prosperity, or dig into the details of the region’s options from the food system to reach net-zero emissions.