In 2022, the continent experienced its second warmest year and the hottest summer ever recorded with low rain and snowfall, according to the European State of the Climate report. Meanwhile, a new study suggests redesigning the European food system on circularity principles could reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 29% and agricultural land use by 71% while ensuring healthy diets.
With 2022’s extreme weather conditions, Europe experienced yield losses in agriculture and lower water levels in rivers and lakes, which impacted river transport, ecosystems and limited availability of freshwater for irrigation.
More hot, dry and wet weather extremes can be expected from a climate warmed by emissions of GHG, Richard Allan, professor of climate science at the University of Reading, UK, tells NutritionInsight.
“But the report also highlights the unusually low river levels, record glacier melt and warm lake and river temperatures, all of which are causing impacts on our societies and the ecosystems upon which we depend.”
Allan adds that sustained and massive GHG cuts are needed to moderate further weather extremes. Still, these are “only possible through collaborative action across sectors such as industry, transport, electricity production, domestic heating and agriculture.”
Through a Circular Food System (CiFoS) model, Dutch researchers developed a scenario where changes in the supply side and consumption could safeguard human and planetary health. Their study, published in Nature Food, compares three possible methods to the existing agricultural baseline.
Earth Day’s 2023 theme is “Invest In Our Planet,” to emphasize the importance of dedicating “time, resources and energy to solving climate change and other environmental issues.”
Understanding climate dynamics in Europe is critical to adapt and mitigate its negative impacts on the continent, says Carlo Buontempo, director of the Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S), which published the European climate report.
Allan highlights possible changes to reduce GHG, such as “transitioning to renewable electricity from the wind, solar and hydropower, but also making diets more plant-based and using lower carbon methods for travel such as walking or bikes or electric vehicles and trains.”
“This will involve leadership from governments, which needs to be more ambitious, but also by towns and cities, companies, local groups and individuals, which is already beginning to take place.”
Daniela Schmidt, professor in earth sciences at the University of Bristol, UK, agrees, “We have many adaptation options today by changing supply and demand. Some of these are investments into our infrastructure which will take lead time, but they also include teaching people and companies about land cover change, water savings and efficiency.”
Circular health scenario
CiFoS is an interactive biophysical data-driven optimization model that facilitates the selection of food system redesigns by minimizing agricultural land use and accounting for greenhouse gas emissions while meeting dietary choices.
For the circular health scenario, the authors focused on a food supply that meets nutrient requirements and recommended intake levels per food group from the EAT-Lancet guidelines. The health scenario allows food losses and waste to be fed to animals and aims to minimize land use. In circular food systems, waste – for example, food waste and overconsumption of nutrients – is minimized and, if unavoidable, utilized or recycled most sustainably.
Compared to current baseline agriculture, the health scenario vastly reduces the consumption of animal proteins while increasing plant proteins. The authors note that consuming fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and plant-based oils should also increase.
Though the health scenario provides all needed components for healthier diets, measures are required to facilitate healthy eating, state the authors, “from appropriate processing to changes in food environments, as well as changes in (relative) pricing, accompanied by education and information activities.”
Moreover, although circular food systems redesigns do not depend on future technologies, they rely on social acceptance and a radical transformation of the economic sector, warn the authors.
Climate change impacts
The last eight years have been the warmest recorded, according to the European State of the Climate Report 2022. Global annual carbon dioxide and methane concentrations reached their highest levels ever measured.
“Climate change impacts are here now and we need to invest in adapting to these while increasing our efforts on mitigation,” notes Schmidt.
“We are clearly not prepared for droughts like we have seen in the last year, given the losses in agriculture, scorched plants and fish in dwindling rivers, the impact on transport on rivers and the thousands of human deaths.”
The European State of the Climate 2022 report finds that potential wind power generation was below average. Most of Europe generated above-average potential solar photovoltaic power due to the highest surface solar radiation in 40 years. “GHG emission reductions are imperative for mitigating the worst effects of climate change,” adds Samantha Burgess, deputy director at C3S.
“Understanding and responding to the changes and variability in renewable energy resources, such as wind and solar, are critical to support the energy transition to NetZero. Accurate and timely data improves the profitability of this energy transition.”
Better planet through food
The Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition flagged that COVID-19, conflicts and climate change have wiped out the progress made in malnutrition over the last 15 years, adding that a lack of access to affordable healthy diets lies at the root of all forms of malnutrition.
Researchers suggest that diets with a lower carbon footprint positively impact health. The climatarian diet focuses on eating foods that minimize environmental impact, choosing low-impact options whenever possible and considering foods’ source, production and transportation.
Moreover, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) flagged that balanced diets with less meat, green investments and crop resilience innovations will be critical to slowing down emissions while maintaining agricultural yields that safeguard planetary food security.
Aiming to reduce GHG emissions and waste, EIT Food has launched an international project focusing on ready-to-use tools for teachers to encourage youngsters to approach food holistically and healthily.
By Jolanda van Hal