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In search of just transition within food systems in Asia

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In the last three decades, meat consumption in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and East Asia as a whole has climbed from approximately 36 to over 125 million tonnes, while milk consumption has increased from 60 to over 220 million tonnes, a more than 250 per cent increase for both commodities. AFP

In search of just transition within food systems in Asia

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC’s) recent release of the Sixth Assessment Report is ringing a serious alarm bell on the role of methane emissions in climate change.

The report suggests that the methane levels in the air are now higher than at any point in the past 800,000 years and are tracking close to the high emission scenarios outlined in the IPCC’s previous assessment in 2013.

With roughly 32 per cent of the agriculture sector’s methane emissions caused by livestock (for example, emissions from manure and enteric fermentation), addressing livestock numbers represents a huge opportunity to mitigate global warming and prevent catastrophic levels of climate change.

While methane has a much shorter atmospheric lifetime than carbon dioxide (around 12 years compared with centuries for CO2), it has more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide. And even though CO2 has a longer-lasting effect, methane sets the pace for warming in the near term, making methane emissions reductions potentially the single most efficient way to slow the rate of global warming right now. Furthermore, methane’s addition as a ‘short-lived climate force’ in the report brings to light a crucial aspect of the climate change movement – agriculture, or more specifically, livestock.

A recent study revealed that livestock-sourced methane emissions in 2019 accounted for an increase of 231 per cent since 1961. In the last three decades, meat consumption in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and East Asia as a whole has climbed from approximately 36 to over 125 million tonnes, while milk consumption has increased from 60 to over 220 million tonnes, a more than 250 per cent increase for both commodities.

On the production side, parallel increases have occurred. Moreover, the top three agriculture emitters – Indonesia, India and Brazil – contribute about 30 per cent of total agricultural emissions. Indonesia stands as the second-largest emitter of agricultural emissions globally, as land use processes related to agriculture stand dominant in Indonesia, representing over four-fifths of emissions due to agriculture. A closer look showcases enteric fermentation and livestock manure as the key culprits, causing 13 per cent and 14 per cent of national agricultural emissions, respectively.

These statistics highlight the need to focus on animal agriculture and methane emissions while talking about climate change in Indonesia. While a 1.5 degrees Celsius pathway requires significant dietary shifts, a more urgent need is that of a just transition of animal agriculture while simultaneously incorporating sustainable farming practices in the country.

According to an International Energy Agency report, agriculture, dominated by the livestock industry, is the largest source of anthropogenic methane emissions, responsible for around a quarter of the total anthropogenic emissions, followed closely by the energy sector. Thus, the IPCC findings serve as a red flag for the public scrutiny and policy attention that has focused on driving down CO2 emissions from coal and oil so far.

The report is a powerful resource for policymakers, regulators, consumers, supply chain actors, practitioners, advocates, and local communities. Effective action must be based on a deep understanding of context and build on solid evidence, scientific knowledge, and a holistic view of food systems that includes all stakeholders and cross-cutting aspects.

The widespread implementation of coherent policies can drive transformative change and create an enabling environment for national, local and individual action. The success story of the ozone layer recovery demonstrates the effectiveness of clear and concerted interventions driven by political will and structural support.

To make the IPCC report actionable and bring about institutional and behavioural change, it is vital to develop a legal and policy framework that offers incentives and direction for all relevant actors, including farmers, food producers, consumers, regulators, civil society organisations, and local authorities. Aligning national policy frameworks with global processes such as those under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change or the Sustainable Development Goals will help to further mainstream actions and unlock synergies and co-benefits across the climate change, food systems, and development spaces.

The IPCC report provides the scientific foundation for urgent, decisive, and high-impact policy action. Given the need for a drastic reduction of methane emissions and the opportunity to achieve this in the livestock sector, it is vital to approach a food system transition across all levels. This should be done with the involvement of all key actors, facilitating a shift toward climate-compatible food production and a reduction of meat consumption that will benefit humans, animals, and the climate.

First, such a transition must include institutional changes through policy instruments such as reallocation of subsidies, regulations, procurement rules, trade agreements, standards and accreditation, and country-specific roadmaps. Institutional support in the form of guidelines, model initiatives, incubators, and accelerators can speed up the shift towards a more climate-friendly, sustainable, and plant-based food production, which can be further supported with financial incentives, minimum price guarantees, enhanced extension services, coverage of initial losses, skills retraining programmes, risk management and insurance mechanisms.

Second, policy and production-level transformation must be accompanied by a social dialogue, collective action, and the inclusion of farmers, workers, communities, and producers. Multi-stakeholder driven and bottom-up approaches can build momentum and enter positive feedback loops with policy changes, as can shifts in social recognition and attitudes, “branding” of food production, and awareness creation of the true cost of meat production. Dietary guidelines and campaigns, dialogues with farmers and consumers, collaboration with unions, building trust, and mainstreaming emission reduction are different instruments to strengthen a participatory, whole-of-society transformation that aligns with national development needs and climate commitments.

For a just transition in the livestock sector and food systems, social protection is key to leaving no one behind. This can entail social assistance, income security, safety nets for unemployment, maternity, injury, sickness, or old age, and insurance skills training, but also schemes connected to workforce redeployment, enterprise support, public works programs, or payment for environmental services.

Furthermore, it is essential to formulate gender-responsive policies and plans that are conscious of differential needs and vulnerabilities and include marginalised groups and indigenous communities.

Widespread structural changes in a matter of decades is a daunting task, but it is far from impossible. It is time for governments in Asia to publicly recognize that reducing industrialized livestock production and consumption is essential to meet the global targets of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Paris Agreement and the Convention on Biological Diversity. Just Livestock Transition offers accessible and equitable pathways for reducing livestock production through job creation, social justice, poverty reduction, and better public health.

Governments across the world already have the necessary tools to facilitate a Just Livestock Transition and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to make a vital contribution towards keeping the goals of the Paris Agreement within reach. Now, they should take ambitious steps toward a fair, healthy and compassionate global food system.

Dennis Mombauer is director of SLYCAN Trust, a non-profit think tank in Colombo. Shweta Sood is head of programmes of 50 by 40, a collective impact organisation dedicated to cutting the global production and consumption of animal products by 50 per cent by 2040.



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