The world food system is in disarray. Animal farming is a major driver of global warming, and as many as 12 million deaths from heart disease, stroke, cancers and diabetes each year are linked to eating the wrong things, like too much red and processed meat and too little fruits and vegetables. Unless the world can reduce the amount of animal products in its diet and adopt more plant-based diets, there is little chance of avoiding dangerous levels of climate change and growing public health problems.
Agricultural subsidies help support an unhealthy and unsustainable diet. Worldwide, more than US$200 billion in public money (that is, money raised through taxes) is provided to farmers each year in direct transfers – usually with the goal of supporting national food production and supply.
This may not be a problem in itself – we all need to eat. But the way governments provide subsidies today exacerbates the health and environmental issues of food production. This is one of the results of a new study published in Nature Communications by my colleague Florian Freund.
Agricultural subsidies at work
According to our analysis, around two-thirds of agricultural remittance payments worldwide come without any restrictions. Farmers can use it to grow whatever they like.
In practice, this means that every fifth dollar is used to raise meat, and every tenth dollars is used to make dairy products — the types of foods farmers have grown to produce but emit disproportionate amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, which are also linked to food. Risks such as heart disease and certain types of cancer.
Farmers use another third of these payments to grow staple crops such as wheat and corn, and crops used to produce sugar and oil. These are foods that have already been produced and consumed in large quantities and which, if any, should be limited in a healthy, sustainable diet.
Less than a quarter of transfer payments are used to grow the types of foods that are beneficial to human health and the environment, and of which a healthy and sustainable diet needs more: fruits, vegetables, legumes and nuts.
Based on this division, there is clearly plenty of room to improve how governments and farmers issue and spend agricultural subsidies. We decided to look at the alternatives and compare how they work in the real world.
Where does agricultural support go?
We combined an economic model that tracks the effects of changing subsidies on food production and the food people eat with an environmental model that compares changes in resource use and greenhouse gas emissions — as well as a health model that measures diet-related consequences. diseases.
In one scenario, we made all subsidy payments to farms conditional on producing healthy, sustainable food. Farmers would still be free to grow other crops and food, but not with the support of subsidies. We found that fruit and vegetable production would rise significantly – by about 20% in developed countries. This would translate to people eating half a serving of more fruits and vegetables per day. At the same time, meat and dairy production will decrease by 2% – reducing agricultural greenhouse gas emissions by 2%.
However, we also found that the economy could suffer if all subsidies were used in this way, drawing workers into agriculture from the more productive parts of the economy.
Fortunately, there are ways to avoid this. Either make half of all subsidies conditional on growing healthy and sustainable food, or combine these conditional subsidies with a reduction in the total amount of payments—tying them, for example, to an amount determined by a country’s GDP or population. Each of these options will result in a healthy food supply and lower greenhouse gas emissions without reducing economic output.
Read more: Why the humble legume could be the answer to Europe’s addiction to fertilizers
Policy makers in the European Union currently aim to reduce the environmental impact of the subsidy payments while those in the UK consider the public money approach to public goods, which pays farmers to provide things like clean water, wildlife habitat and nutritious food supplies. Unfortunately, proposals of this kind are often watered down when implemented.
Our analysis suggests something that is largely missing from current plans: changing the food production mix. What a food farmer chooses to grow has a greater impact on the environment and health than how it is grown. Reorienting subsidies toward producing healthy, sustainable food should be an essential part of reforming agriculture around the world.