In a previous article on livestock in Costa Rica, we questioned the scope of climate action based on consumption patterns and provided some nuances to consider the consumption of red meat in the Costa Rican context. In the end, we wondered what transformations we could seek to make our climate action more meaningful and to have a greater impact on the transformation of food systems.
We will focus more on the beginning and end of the food system: production and consumption, which have the most potential to offer solutions to climate change according to the best scientific evidence currently available.
The proposal is four fundamentals that can serve both to make decisions at the individual level, and to coordinate actions with other people such as consumers, activists, or citizens concerned about climate change.
1. R.I.P Food Pyramid.
We know the classic food pyramid as a general guideline on how our diet should be. However, it is not a model based on scientific objectives for the universal food system, applicable to all people, never mind the planet.
The Planetary Health Diet, by contrast, is a more up-to-date proposition that is not only based on health considerations, but is consistent with many traditional eating patterns. It does not imply the entire world population should eat exactly the same, nor does it prescribe an exact diet. Instead, it talks about food groups and intake ranges for each locality to adapt to its culture, geography, and demographics. It can even be tailored to personal preferences.
A planetary health dish, roughly speaking, should have half made up of vegetables and fruits, and the other half made up of a combination of whole grains, vegetable proteins, unsaturated vegetable oils and, optionally, modest amounts of animal and starchy vegetables.
For the Costa Rican case, it is first necessary to aim to scale this model and improve access to healthy diets in general. By 2019, food insecurity rose to 25.5%, and obesity to 25.7%. It is estimated that in Costa Rica, a healthy diet according to the standards of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has a cost per day per person of $3.97. Currently, 11.8% of the population cannot afford it.
2. Solutions Must Respect Rights
Any transformation of the food system must be guided by a human rights approach and be suspicious of “solutions” to the problems of malnutrition or climate change that ignore them.
For example, indigenous peoples exploit animals to some degree, which must be reviewed within the framework of their demands for autonomy and territorial food sovereignty. Other communities with a strong traditional base have productive practices that have allowed them to self-sustain for a long time. In some cases, the drastic reduction in the consumption of animal products would not only lead to an unbalanced diet, but also to malnutrition and the loss of livelihoods.
Therefore, it is important to make a difference between cultural practices and market dynamics. It is not the subject, but the economic model, which determines the parameters of consumption and production. Our economies function around extractivism and colonialism for the benefit of other countries and their elites, who then benefit from leaving the responsibilities to the final consumer and the “externalities” to the environment and vulnerable people.
If we are guided by the principles of climate justice, responsibilities for climate change must be common but differentiated. Costa Rica contributes 15.6 metric tons of CO₂e annually, which is only 0.03% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, our activism is most useful for the local and global food system when it prioritizes adaptation, and attention to damage and loss caused by climate impacts, especially since we are a highly vulnerable country.
The impacts of climate change will continue. Without combined measures of the food system in the management of farms, supply chains and demand, the adverse effects will include increased numbers of undernourished people and impacts on small farmers. A just transition is needed to address these effects.
Culture is also a right and food culture is a source of identity. It must be taken into account when adopting any climate action, strengthening methods of production and consumption of culturally appropriate food that respect the communities and their cultural heritage, as well as the environment.
3. Choosing Our Battles
At this point, we understand that the mere act of eliminating meat will not transform the current food systems. While some individual actions are enough to keep us within specific planetary limits, no single intervention is sufficient to be below all limits simultaneously. The silver lining of this complexity is that each sector of society and each person can contribute in many ways. What should we take into account?
It has been recognized that food systems have environmental impacts throughout the supply chain, from production to processing and distribution, and also go beyond human and environmental health by also affecting society, culture, economy and animal welfare.
Although there are differing opinions among climate activists about the role of livestock in all this, a criticism of industrial agriculture is shared because of the socio-environmental consequences of its dependence on monocultures, agrochemicals and land grabbing.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that balanced diets, which include plant-based foods, and animal-based foods produced in resilient, sustainable, and low-emission systems, present great opportunities for adaptation and mitigation to the time that generate important co-benefits in human health.
The EAT-Lancet Commission aims for a transformation of the food system that seeks international and national commitment to shift towards healthy diets, reorient agricultural priorities: moving from big quantities of food producing, to producing healthy food, sustainably intensifying the production of high quality, strong and coordinated land and ocean management, and reducing food loss and food waste by at least half.
Any individual or collective action that points to any of these aspects is undoubtedly necessary for us to move towards this transformation more quickly.
4. Tradition and Science Based Solutions
Agroecology is at once a science, a practice and a social movement. Understood as science, agroecology is the integrative study of the ecology of the food system as a whole, the application of agroecological concepts and principles in the design and management of sustainable food systems and the integration of research, training, action and fieldwork that brings sustainability to all food system components: ecological, economic and social.
As a practice, it seeks to improve those agroecosystems that it studies, starting from the use of natural processes, generating beneficial biological interactions and synergies between their components. Agroecology has positioned itself as the proposal with the greatest scientific and technical support, including FAO’s, and consistent with IPCC’s previously said guidelines.
As a social movement, agroecology is seen as a safe and fair solution to climate change and malnutrition. It supports diverse forms of small-scale food production and family farming, farmers and rural communities, food sovereignty, local knowledge, social justice, local identity and culture, and indigenous rights over seeds and livestock.
This transformation must go hand in hand with public policies that take care of the key socioeconomic subject of change: a central role to small producers of food and rural and urban workers in their design and implementation. That, as pointed out before, consistent with the different relevant national and international legal instruments, such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas. Thus, to be able to face the corporate capture of agroecology that seeks a partial ecological transition and without social justice.