How food growing can help avert the climate crisis

Over the next two weeks, negotiations around climate action will take place at COP26 in Glasgow. Billed as ‘the world’s best last chance to get runaway climate change under control’, the summit will bring policymakers together to agree comprehensive and ambitious climate action goals. The food system will be on the agenda.

But here’s a question not many people are asking: what role could food growing play to help avert climate disaster? The scale of the problems in our food system demands an entirely new perspective on food. Growing some of your own food is a transformative step towards connecting with farmers and nature in a way that a sustainable food system demands.

We simply can’t shy away from the fact that our food is a major part of the climate change problem. But the good news is that many solutions are right in front of us. One of the COP26 goals is for countries to commit to reducing emissions to ‘net zero’ by 2030. In Ireland, the agriculture industry is the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), accounting for an estimated 37.7% of emissions in 2020 (SEAI), with livestock responsible for approx. 60% of emissions (Teagasc). The simplest (albeit controversial) solution is to eat fewer animals and more plants. Project Drawdown ranks this dietary shift as one of the top five climate solutions.

Our research shows that food growers are more than 50% more likely to have a predominantly plant-based diet compared to the general population. Little wonder when you consider that homegrown food is, by definition, the most sustainable, nutritious and delicious food imaginable – it makes sense that you would want food you’ve grown yourself to form a bigger part of your daily plate.

The next biggest contributor to agricultural emissions is fertiliser. A whole-scale shift towards chemical free, organic production is needed. And while it is more expensive to buy organic food, switching to a more plant-based diet, which can be significantly cheaper than a meat-heavy diet, helps make this possible. Organic soil also has the potential to be a major carbon sink. Supporting farmers who love their soil and cultivate organic matter into it is not just about damage limitation, but also about taking carbon out of the atmosphere. The more food growers learn to care about their own soil, the more important this becomes when they visit the supermarket as consumers.

Outside of food production, our meals rack up GHG emissions the further they travel, often as out-of-season produce covered in plastic packaging. Buying directly from farmers at local markets (or NeighbourFood – the online version) or through box schemes (such as Green Earth Organics) ensures that food producers aren’t squeezed out by middlemen. Food growers are more than twice as likely to do this than the average person. And with whatever food ends up in our homes, we must view food waste as a moral outrage.

One third of all food that is produced is wasted. Again, food growers show different behaviour to the general population – over 40% are more likely to avoid letting almost any food go to waste. In Ireland, the average household wastes €700 worth of food every year. Using that to buy organic produce at a farmers’ market instead would be money well spent. Food growing often comes across as a middle-class hobby, but in practice it spans income levels and is characterised by thrift.

One of the great threats to progress on the food system is tension between food producers and climate activists. But growing food can turn a person into both. And with the devasting impact intensive food production has on climate change, we need more and more people to become both. Our collective health and wellbeing is intimately tied to the success of our farmers. By walking a mile in a farmer’s boots, we can go beyond finger-pointing and support transition policies that protect the planet as best as we now can.

There’s no question that the global food system is complex and there are many finer details to the points outlined above. This is another reason why growing some of your own food is a good idea. By connecting with the seasons – as well as the soil and toil required to put food on the table – food growing acts as a gateway to better understanding the food system and a way to gain the knowledge and motivation to make sustainable choices. With power in numbers, this culture shift will help policymakers and commercial producers double down on system-wide changes.

Another of the COP26 goals is to encourage countries to rise to the challenges of the climate crisis by working together. As a nation, as communities, schools and businesses, and as conscientious individuals, we can collectively and individually take steps to help protect our planet and people and ensure a more resilient future for us all. All it takes is action: to start, grow some of your own food. A new food future awaits.

Mick Kelly, CEO and founder of GIY