Fossil fuels: the hidden ingredient in our food chain

Unveiling the entwined destiny of our food systems and climate crisis.

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As nations grapple with the urgent need to curb climate change, a striking revelation surfaces. A profound report, ahead of the pivotal COP28 climate summit, illuminates the depth of fossil fuel entanglement within our food systems. Responsible for a staggering 15 percent of global fossil fuel consumption, the machinery behind our meals emits greenhouse gases comparable to the entire European Union and Russia combined.

The report, a collaborative effort by the Global Alliance for the Future of Food and Dalberg Advisors, is more than an eye-opener—it’s a clarion call for systemic transformation. Titled “Power Shift: Why We Need to Wean Industrial Food Systems Off Fossil Fuels,” it lays bare the energy-intensive nature of producing, processing, and transporting food. A pivot to this report reveals the daunting truth: even as nations commit to 2030 climate goals, food-related fossil fuel usage threatens to deplete our 1.5°C carbon budget by 2037.

The authors spotlight ultra-processed foods—our packaged snacks, beverages, and ready meals—as major pollution culprits alongside the chemically synthesized fertilizers birthed from natural gas. A third of our global food production hangs in the balance, besieged by the escalating climate crisis that both feeds on and fuels our current food system operations.

With COP28 on the horizon, set to unfold in Dubai, food sustainability will vault to the forefront of discussions. However, the preparatory murmurings stir unease among scientists and activists. The year leading to the summit has been scarred by climate calamities, and the hosting nation, the UAE, stands as a titan of oil production with burgeoning investments in petrochemicals.

Patty Fong, a pivotal voice from the Global Alliance, emphasizes the urgent need to sever the food industry’s reliance on fossil fuels to achieve a truly climate-friendly transition. But it’s a challenging feat: from snacks to soft drinks, the food sector’s dependence on fossil fuels runs deep, especially within the realms of processing, packaging, and waste management.

As the International Energy Agency warns, petrochemicals are set to fuel oil demand growth, with significant investments fueling the industry, particularly within the United States. The uncomfortable truth lies in the details: petrochemicals, derived from oil and gas, are the bedrock of the food industry’s packaging and fertilizers, making any discussion of food system reform incomplete without addressing this dependency.

The pathway to a greener food future isn’t just about dialing back emissions—it’s about a fundamental realignment of consumption patterns and food markets. The report advocates for a pivot towards diets less reliant on fossil fuels, nudging away from ultra-processed options to healthier, more sustainable choices. This shift requires confronting the entrenched power of the agribusiness conglomerates—a cadre of petrochemical, plastics, and fertilizer giants with stakes rooted deep in the status quo.

Investigations ahead of COP28, notably by DeSmog, have uncovered concerted efforts by these corporations and their governmental allies to steer the conversation towards technological quick fixes, circumventing the more profound, necessary changes. Amid energy and food crises, the response has often reverted to bolstering access to fossil fuel-based inputs like fertilizers rather than fostering resilience through regenerative and agroecological practices.

As the reports—both the briefing paper and its companion Discussion Paper—make clear, it’s not merely a transition that is required but a reinvention of the nexus between our food and energy systems. The aim is not just to adapt but to redefine how we produce and consume, ensuring our food systems are not only sustainable but are also resilient and equitable. The call to action is unambiguous: it is time for stakeholders across sectors to unite in forging pathways to a future unfettered by fossil fuels—a future where our nourishment doesn’t come at the expense of our planet’s health.

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