For many years, climate activists have advocated diminished meat intake and a shift toward a more plant-centric diet as a step toward slowing the growth of or even reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. What’s less understood is no major dietary source, plant or animal, is a better candidate for reducing GHG emissions than wheat.
The public has become steadily more concerned about climate change, led by millennials. A 2019 study by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication showed 59% of the public in 2018 was either alarmed or concerned about global warming, up from 43% in 2013. The percentage of respondents who were alarmed has more than doubled, while those who are doubtful or dismissive fell to 18% from 28% in 2013.
Responding to the changing sentiment, more than 500 global companies have committed to setting climate goals guided by the prevailing science even as the Trump administration has set in motion the US withdrawal from the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. US baking companies have been especially active in sustainability efforts, with the industry accounting for 45% of all manufacturing plants gaining Energy Star certification from the Environmental Protection Agency.
While baking’s leadership in energy conservation and GHG emissions has been exemplary, requiring longstanding commitment, even greater potential for GHG reductions rests earlier in the food chain. A 2017 study published in Nature Plants showed two-thirds of the carbon footprint of bread comes from farming, a large part of which comes from the application of chemical fertilizer.
The untapped, and largely ignored, promise of beneficial changes from agriculture were highlighted by McKinsey & Co. in a special report, “Agriculture and Climate Change” published last month.
As a contributor to GHG emissions, agriculture’s role is higher than is not widely appreciated, according to McKinsey. The report notes beef and dairy cows globally accounted in 2016 for 8 gigatonnes of GHG emissions, a vast figure that matches the entire annual emissions of the United States. The share of total global emissions from agriculture, forestry and land-use change is about 27%, significantly more than power and heat (18%) and not much less than industry (32%).
With per capita food consumption poised to grow 8% to 12% annually as the global population climbs toward 10 billion by 2050, it will be impossible to tackle global warming without dealing with the farm sector. Still, McKinsey said policy makers have not focused on agricultural emissions, noting that only 38% of such emissions are covered in the Paris agreement.
Hurdles to addressing GHG emissions were identified by the consultancy. Other economic sectors have identified and begun to embrace technologies that reduce emissions. For instance, coal and gas increasingly have been replaced by wind and solar power. Few easy examples come to mind for agriculture. Additionally, agriculture is less consolidated than other sectors, involving more than 2 billion people employed in the field, a fourth of the world’s population. Most work on or own small farms.
Still, McKinsey, which has been studying GHG abatement for more than a decade, has identified many achievable ways to reduce agriculture-related emissions. Holding the sector back have been limited access to capital and technology as well as hewing to tradition.
Recommendations surrounding two broad areas — production and consumption — deserve particular attention from the flour-based food sector.
On the production side, a few of the 25 changes in agricultural practices recommended by McKinsey pertained to the cultivation of wheat and other crops. Atop the list was shifting from fossil fuel equipment such as tractors and combines to zero-emission counterparts. McKinsey said market penetration for zero-emission equipment is behind that of consumer vehicles, adding that no notable commercial launches have been recorded. McKinsey believes total cost-of-ownership parity (between electric and fossil fuel vehicles) is possible by 2030, after which the advantage would shift to battery powered equipment as battery prices decline. Because the average ownership of a tractor is 20 years, the need to introduce this technology quickly is heightened. Other cost-effective opportunities include variable fertilization.
Changing wheat production practices offers the potential for meaningful but marginal reductions in global GHG emissions. Far greater reductions may be achieved by changing eating patterns. Not surprisingly, McKinsey’s prescriptions for agriculture fall heavily on meat production and consumption.
“Billions of people need to change their behavior,” the study finds. “Average global consumption of ruminant animal protein (mostly beef and lamb) is three times the recommended level.”
Reducing meat intake would pay double dividends since methane is a much more powerful driver of global warming than carbon dioxide but actually lasts in the atmosphere a shorter time, the report says.
“Without a significant breakthrough in production efficiency, adhering to the 1.5º C (maximum global warming through 2050) pathway would require reducing the share of global consumption of ruminant animal (mostly beef and lamb) protein by half, from about 9% in current projections to about 4% to 5% by 2050,” the report says.
What is startling in the McKinsey data (sourced from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) is the degree to which when it comes to environmentally-friendly food choices, all signs point to wheat. Using kilograms of carbon dioxide production per kilogram of protein as its measure, beef scored a 46.2 versus 5.2 kilograms for poultry. Fish, eggs and milk are slightly less carbon intensive, scoring 3.0, 3.6 and 2.8, respectively. Among other plant sources of protein, wheat scored by far the lowest at 0.2 (meaning beef is 231 times more carbon intensive), well below soybeans at 0.6, nuts and seeds at 1.4 and rice at 2.6.
Perhaps even more meaningful would be measuring wheat against competitive foods based on caloric (energy rather than protein) content. By that benchmark, as further calculated by Milling & Baking News, rice production is seven times more carbon intensive than wheat, and soybeans generate six times more GHG per calorie than wheat. Beef is 615 times more carbon intensive than wheat and poultry is 76 times. Among staples tracked in the McKinsey paper, wheat stands head and shoulders above any alternative in terms of keeping the environmental impact at a minimum. Still, an internet search for planet-friendly foods yields nary a mention of bread. Highlighted products tend to be fruits and vegetables (carbon intense, when measured on a caloric basis), niche products such as lentils and ancient grains and potatoes (highly carbon intense when consumed as french fries).
It is doubtful many consumers appreciate the healthfulness of wheat for the planet relative both to other staples and to “local food products” pursued with ever-growing fervor. It’s clear much of the grain-based foods industry holds an advantaged position versus competitive foods from a climate-friendliness perspective, and this issue needs to be far better understood than is the case at present. Millions of consumers already think about the environment in their day-to-day living, whether by recycling, composting, installing LED lightbulbs or through transportation choices like hybrids, bicycles or public transit. They make eating decisions multiple times a day, every day of the year. When they do, and within the framework of a healthy, balanced diet, consumers seeking to make a difference should be guided by a simple mantra — eat wheat. Wheat is scalable, versatile and popular — the true staff of life. More than ever, wheat-based foods need to be the foundation of the global diet. It’s a story that needs to be shared, loudly and soon.