Transition Sunderland

What Does Sunderland’s Declaration of Climate Emergency Mean for Local Food & Biodiversity?

In August 2019 the United Nations (UN) released a report expressing concern that the world’s land and water resources are being exploited at unprecedented rates, exacerbated by climate change. Below is a link to a New York Times piece on the report.

If you can’t access the piece above a link to the summary report can be found here.

While the report highlights the areas of the world where the impacts will be felt greatest, the answers it proposes need to be addressed by the global community. Many of those answers require action by the global agricultural industry, not a body noted for implementing change which does not include greater profits. 

We are often told by the food industry that they are ‘giving the people what they want’ & ‘it’s a buyers market, if people didn’t want it, we wouldn’t produce it’.

In a world of simple choices, where individuals receive so much income per month and must pay the bills to get by, it appears a no-brainer to pay as little as possible for food. But we no longer live in a world of simple choices, actually we never have but the facts were hidden to us.

Many people are increasingly coming to understand the issues around the climate & ecological crisis; they feel empathy for the people & animals who are suffering and wish to do what they can to help. 

For those with little time to read the report, I’ve copied the salient points from my perspective as a local food & rewilding advocate below, adding notes below each regarding what we as individuals, communities, towns & cities can do to help. 

Chapter 5 Security: 

Supply-side practices can contribute to climate change mitigation by reducing crop and livestock emissions, sequestering carbon in soils and biomass, and by decreasing emissions intensity within sustainable production systems (high confidence).

Options with large potential for GHG mitigation in cropping systems include soil carbon sequestration (at decreasing rates over time), reductions in N2O emissions from fertilisers, reductions in CH4 emissions from paddy rice, and bridging of yield gaps. Options with large potential for mitigation in livestock systems include better grazing land management, with increased net primary production and soil carbon stocks, improved manure management, and higher-quality feed. Reductions in GHG emissions intensity (emissions per unit product) from livestock can support reductions in absolute emissions, provided appropriate governance to limit total production is implemented at the same time (medium confidence). {5.5.1}

Crops produced by the industrial food system are invariably produced using petro-chemical based fertilisers, pesticides & herbicides, some are also GM (genetically modified). Food is cheap in the shops because the full costs of production are not passed-on to the consumer, not all ‘costs’ are valued in money, there is a cost to the environment, and those that live in climate stressed areas are paying that cost. Using organic processes to produce crops is much kinder to the environment & also stores carbon safely in the soil. Livestock which are outdoor-bred & grass-fed, managed correctly to not stress the delicate balance in the soil are likewise much kinder to the environment and store carbon in the soil.

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Consumption of healthy and sustainable diets presents major opportunities for reducing GHG emissions from food systems and improving health outcomes (high confidence). Examples of healthy and sustainable diets are high in coarse grains, pulses, fruits and vegetables, and nuts and seeds; low in energy-intensive animal-sourced and discretionary foods (such as sugary beverages); and with a carbohydrate threshold.

This estimate includes reductions in emissions from livestock and soil carbon sequestration on spared land, but co-benefits with health are not taken into account. Mitigation potential of dietary change may be higher, but achievement of this potential at broad scales depends on consumer choices and dietary preferences that are guided by social, cultural, environmental, and traditional factors, as well as income growth. Meat analogues such as imitation meat (from plant products), cultured meat, and insects may help in the transition to more healthy and sustainable diets, although their carbon footprints and acceptability are uncertain.

This speaks for itself, I would add that buying organic fruit, veg & meat is a much better choice for the environment if you can afford it. If not, buying or growing your own local food helps build a home market, there can be no home grown market without demand for the produce in the first instance.

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Reduction of food loss and waste could lower GHG emissions and improve food security (medium confidence). Combined food loss and waste amount to 25–30% of total food produced (medium confidence). During 2010–2016, global food loss and waste equalled 8–10% of total anthropogenic GHG emissions (medium confidence);

Buying food produced closer to home should mean that there is less chance of food waste. Local food production can have the added benefit of local collection of food waste for composting, so kick-starting a local circular economy.

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Agriculture and the food system are key to global climate change responses. Combining supply-side actions such as efficient production, transport, and processing with demand-side interventions such as modification of food choices, and reduction of food loss and waste, reduces GHG emissions and enhances food system resilience (high confidence). Such combined measures can enable the implementation of large-scale land-based adaptation and mitigation strategies without threatening food security from increased competition for land for food production and higher food prices. Without combined food system measures in farm management, supply chains, and demand, adverse effects would include increased numbers of malnourished people and impacts on smallholder farmers (medium evidence, high agreement). Just transitions are needed to address these effects.

Currently the UK imports approx. 36% of it’s food. As we leave the EU there will perhaps be no better time than now to set-up farms using Community Supported Agriculture schemes. Such schemes can address many of the above issues.

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For adaptation and mitigation throughout the food system, enabling conditions need to be created through policies, markets, institutions, and governance (high confidence). For adaptation, resilience to increasing extreme events can be accomplished through risk sharing and transfer mechanisms such as insurance markets and index-based weather insurance (high confidence).Public health policies to improve nutrition –such as school procurement, health insurance incentives, and awareness-raising campaigns – can potentially change demand, reduce healthcare costs, and contribute to lower GHG emissions (limited evidence, high agreement). Without inclusion of comprehensive food system responses in broader climate change policies, the mitigation and adaptation potentials assessed in this chapter will not be realised and food security will be jeopardised (high confidence).

Schools, local councils and other procurement measures have the potential to transform the way we produce food, creating jobs, healthy exercise & good nutrition while building resilience in the food system. To my mind it is unlikely that the agricultural industry will acquiesce to demands for mitigation & adaptation policies, leaving us open to food insecurity.

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From the main report

About a quarter of the Earth’s ice-free land area is subject to human-induced degradation (medium confidence). Soil erosion from agricultural fields is estimated to be currently 10 to 20 times (no tillage) to more than 100 times (conventional tillage) higher than the soil formation rate (medium confidence).

Not tilling the soil and adding organic matter has been shown to improve soil loss markedly, it is also beneficial to micro organisms which have largely been lost by applications of fertilisers, pesticides & herbicides. Restoring the soil food web also allows greater resilience to drought conditions.

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Urban expansion is projected to lead to conversion of cropland leading to losses in food production (high confidence). This can result in additional risks to the food system. Strategies for reducing these impacts can include urban and peri-urban food production and management of urban expansion, as well as urban green infrastructure that can reduce climate risks in cities  (high confidence).

 Urban expansion is not limited to ‘cropland leading to losses in food production’. Food is produced by the interaction of sun, water & soil, if one of those is missing food production becomes much harder. There is little we can do about the sun, we must aim to conserve water, we must aim to conserve soil in our local areas.

From the press report at the top

A particular danger is that food crises could develop on several continents at once, said Cynthia Rosenzweig, a senior research scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and one of the lead authors of the report. “The potential risk of multi-breadbasket failure is increasing,” she said. “All of these things are happening at the same time.”

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There is a very real danger of multi-breadbasket failures. We must build resilience into our local food systems. I would argue that we need to stop building on areas with good quality topsoil, and that where removal of soil is necessary for development, it is conserved ready to be used to establish new growing areas.

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Forest Gardens / Food Forests

These terms are interchangeable denoting differences in scale. Practitioners of permaculture are very aware of these growing methods; based on the realisation that we must conserve our soils, growing fruit & nut trees as an upper storey with shrubs and larger perennial plants taking up the next layer, down to soil level & below with further perennial & annual plants. All of the plants are chosen to produce food or some other benefit to humans. Wildlife is not forgotten, these plants will enhance biodiversity from bees & other insects to birds & other animals. The food web begins with the soil life, no chemicals, fertilisers or pesticides are allowed, compost and wood mulch are all that is required to sustain the us, as it has been for thousands of years.

I propose that members of communities come together in good faith to form groups to engage in the growing of food forests on any reasonably sized plot of land in their locality. 

Other larger trees may be grown too to store carbon in their biomass and the soil, but this will take a long time, priority needs to be on producing food as that is where the near-term danger lies,

Currently wood chips are a free resource which tree surgeons will gladly give away, (that may change as demand increases) covering the soil with cardboard covered in 4” (100mm) of wood chips stops grass & weeds from growing giving time for soil amendments, ie compost, compost extract & compost teas to be produced. 

Groups can organise food waste collections in the local areas, producing compost heaps used to enhance the soil microbiology.

Water can be saved from nearby roofs, stored for emergency use in droughts.

Local authorities can allocate land and may be able to help in some respects, but primarily this is down to communities building what has been termed Regenerative Cultures.

I don’t think of this as work, think of it as building resilience into a system that will sustain my grandchildren & their children; no one knows when they will be needed in earnest. But we need to start the process today as tomorrow may be too late. 

For anyone wishing a better description of a Forest Garden, or verification of the actions I propose above see here.

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