Food’s connection with health — both for humans and the planet — was often overlooked and neglected for the last 200 years in the western world. In 2022, though, the importance of food for the planet reemerged as an integral part of good everyday health and healing, a way to protect and reclaim the earth’s ecosystems from climate pollution. Let’s look at some of the 2022 stories about plants, sustainable farming practices, and agricultural cleantech in order to understand the importance and place of food’s renaissance in our lives.
Food Firsts — and Disappointments — at COP27
Sustainable diets are defined by the UN as “diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to a healthy life for present and future generations.” Research has suggested that 20-30% of environmental impacts in Europe and the UK originate from our diets, including impacts from food production, processing, and retail. It is also now widely accepted that the consumption of meat and animal products typically has a higher environmental impact than plant based foods.
The first ever Food Systems Pavilion thrived at COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh. It was an opportunity to spread this message of building sustainable, resilient, and equitable food systems far and wide. Organizations, institutions, and advocates for change voiced concerns about providing equitable and healthy food systems.
Tom Benton at Chatham House writes that “COP27 maintained a firm focus on supply side solutions to tackle food insecurity, avoiding the politically more contentious demand side issues of ensuring nutritious and sustainable diets for all.” The WWF concurs, noting that the Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture remains narrowly focused on agricultural production.
Little agreement was reached on the importance of food systems transformation to prevent the most severe impacts of climate change. Climate action requires systemic and integrated approaches to food.
Paying Farmers for Carbon Offsets
Indigo Ag, the world’s largest AgTech startup, announced that it paid over $3.7 million to 450 US farmers in 30 states for producing carbon offsets during the 2021 crop year. Payments went to farmers enrolled in Carbon by Indigo, a program that helps growers adopt sustainable practices — like cover cropping and no-till — that draw CO2 into soil and capture emissions. Indigo’s second annual carbon farming payment is more than triple the amount awarded to farmers at their inaugural payment.
Farmers receive 75% of the average buyer price for each carbon credit, and Indigo adjusts payments annually to reflect the rising price of carbon through additional payments to growers who produced credits at a lower cost the season prior. Indigo’s credit prices have grown from $20 to $40 over two years, and the company predicts it will continue to climb as global demand surges. Indigo is the first company in history to produce agricultural carbon credits at scale (roughly 20,000 credits issued in 2021) and is on target to shatter its inaugural numbers during its second credit issuance, anticipated for early 2023.
Certification Standard for Sustainably Grown Agricultural Crops
Millions of people are eating less meat and dairy. While their reasons for doing so vary widely from a focus on personal health, to the climate crisis, to animal cruelty and others, more consumers than ever are choosing turning to plant based alternatives. Lots of new plant-based food products are appearing on the grocery shelves, but it’s become hard for consumers to discern how healthy many of these new products are due to inaccurate or inconsistent product labeling. While consumers look for foods that are good for people and the planet, some companies make wishful climate and environmental commitments that won’t go into effect for decades, which makes them functionally meaningless.
Bringing enhanced clarity and veracity to the marketplace is essential for plant-based foods. Because consumers of plant-based products need a reliable way to know what they’re buying and eating and because businesses need a way to back up their claims and differentiate their products from competitors, in December, 2022, SCS published Version 3.0 of the Certification Standard for Sustainably Grown Agricultural Crops.
It’s a comprehensive framework and common set of requirements grouped into 3 categories: Business Integrity, Sustainable Farming Practices, and Ethical Stewardship. Sustainably Grown is a detailed framework that is applied to agricultural operations around the world, large and small, providing a road map to satisfy the emerging market for environmental stewardship and social responsibility.
Opting for an independent assessment by a neutral third-party allows for the use of a straightforward claim – Sustainably Grown – to appeal to buyers and consumers. Third-party certification under this internationally recognized standard ensures that producers are working diligently to provide a safe and healthy work environment, support farm workers and communities, and protect vital environmental resources such as clean air, clean water, and wildlife habitat while reducing energy consumption, carbon emissions, and waste.
Another important advance is the recognition of “Trailblazers” in key performance categories. In short, Producers can take their commitment to sustainability even further, opting to meet additional requirements that allow them to achieve recognition under one or more of the following cutting-edge Trailblazer categories: Living Wage, Regenerative Agriculture, Farmworker Empowerment, Community Development, and Biodiversity Champion.
Indigenous Food Sovereignty Initiative
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced new resources and new agreements of the USDA Indigenous Food Sovereignty Initiative, which promotes traditional food ways, Indian Country food and agriculture markets, and Indigenous health through foods tailored to American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) dietary needs. USDA is partnering with tribal serving organizations on these projects to reimagine federal food and agriculture programs from an Indigenous perspective and inform future USDA programs and policies.
“USDA is committed to empowering tribal self-determination and bringing Indigenous perspectives into agriculture, food, and nutrition,” said Secretary Vilsack. “These new videos, publications, and guides will support Indian Country and educate the wider agriculture community.”
The new resources raise awareness of Indigenous and native foods at USDA and among tribal youth, communities, and Native agricultural producers: a users’ manual for interested ranchers, regional seed saving hubs, videos on foraging wild and Indigenous plants, recipes and instructional cooking videos using Indigenous foods, a short form digital media series to engage Native youth in food sovereignty and gardening, indigenous traditional ecological knowledge, and a handbook on the best practices for the humane handling and harvesting of bison in the field, among others.
Food Donation Improvement Act
In a rare bipartisan accomplishment, the Food Donation Improvement Act passed both the US Senate and House of Representatives and is now heading to President Biden’s desk for final approval. The Act will take an important step toward ending both hunger and food waste, helping to make a dent in hunger; the FDIA strengthens existing protections to better support businesses, manufacturers, retailers, farmers, and restaurants to donate their millions of tons of excess food. The legislation was supported by a coalition including the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic, WeightWatchers International, the Food Recovery Network, Bread For The World, NRDC, the Healthy Living Coalition, and many organizations and individuals.
Anti-hunger US Congressperson Jim McGovern urged his colleagues to support the legislation. “Hunger is not inevitable,” he said. “We don’t have a shortage of food; we have a mismatch between abundance and need — a mismatch we can solve by passing this common sense, bipartisan bill.”
The climate crisis exacerbates hunger and malnutrition by threatening the nutritional quality of crops as well as crop productivity. Advocacy for policy change is key to transforming the food system, according to Danielle Nierenberg of the Food Tank, and this type of legislation “can help solve hunger, support farmers, and protect workers and the planet. Simply put,” Nierenberg says, “these are moral and ethical choices we need to make regardless of political affiliation.” The bill points out how the hard and necessary work of systemic transformation in food and agriculture can take place to the benefit of all.
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