Jonathan Foley headshot

As 2021 comes to an end, we take stock of another momentous year that marked massive upheavals in the food system and across society. To lead us into 2022, we asked some of the leading thinkers and doers working on the frontlines of food, justice, and climate to share their thoughts with us about the most pressing issues, what they’ll be working toward in the new year, and what propels them to keep going.

Today, we hear from Jonathan Foley and Chellie Pingree about the political and policy solutions that are needed to begin to address role of food and farming in the climate crisis.

Jonathan Foley, Executive Director, Project Drawdown

What significant challenges facing food, farming, and climate need to be addressed in 2022?

Jonathan Foley headshot

I think we have to stop playing around the margins. At the end of the day, the biggest aspects of the food system that release greenhouse gases are still, and have been for years: deforestation, methane emissions—largely from livestock—and nitrous oxide from too much fertilizer. And all of these are significantly tied to our current meat production systems.

We have to talk about animal agriculture, we have to talk about food waste, we have to rethink a lot of these systems. And I don’t think we’re having that conversation, honestly. We’re talking about maybe a little less beef and some plant-based burgers, and that’s nice, but it’s not enough. We talk a little bit about food waste, yet the numbers haven’t budged very much at all. We talk about industrial ag and the feedlot systems we have today, but they haven’t changed very much. This is as important as renewable energy and more important than electric cars, from a climate perspective. Not to mention what the food system does to biodiversity, water, and what it’s doing to people all over the world. We need a better system, and we have needed it for a long time.

What do you propose to help move things from the margins to the forefront?

At the U.S. level, we seem to have some real difficulty putting agriculture to the same standard of performance from a climate perspective as we do our electrical grids and our cars. Somehow, we privilege Big Ag each and every time and allow them to make changes that are voluntary or pilot projects—things that feel good but are missing the big opportunities, and that worries me a lot.

Also, I worry about the cover that we give ourselves by calling something “net zero,” instead of actual zero. We can’t just create carbon sinks to get out of this. There’s not enough soil, there aren’t enough trees on the planet to absorb all the emissions that we’re going to have in the meantime. We literally have to cut emissions; that is 95 percent of what we need to do. And in ag, that’s going to mean [producing] a lot less meat, especially beef. And it’s going to be really hard on countries that continue reckless deforestation, like Brazil or Indonesia.

I’d like to know: Where is the U.S. in pressuring Brazil and Indonesia on deforestation? Where’s the E.U.? The U.K.? China? One or two big economic powerhouses could stop deforestation in the Amazon. The opportunities are huge, but it’s the lack of spine in the political world that’s causing this stuff to keep getting kicked down the road.

On the other side of that equation, where do you see some progress happening?

Overall, I’m a fairly optimistic guy. We’re making rapid progress in the electricity sector, we’re making pretty good progress in transportation, and some in industry. But in food and ag, it feels like we’re sliding backwards. We’re getting distracted by boutique things like regenerative ag, which hasn’t really shown if it’s really a carbon sink or how widely applicable it could be. It might be helpful, but in the meantime, we know cutting food waste and reducing beef consumption work. Regenerative ag might be a second-order benefit. We’ll need it all. And yes, plant-based burgers, and maybe cultured meat, might help a bit, but they’re still far off from scaling to the size of the problem we’re addressing.

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