Researchers in Europe have revealed an unprecedented picture of the climate impact of the food we eat, all the way from its production to its consumption.
The new findings show that more than a third—34%—of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions are generated by food systems. They also show that food generates an average of 2 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emissions per person annually.
The data indicate which elements of our food production processes are most harmful, showing that while the way we use land accounts for most emissions, food distribution and processing methods have become markedly more energy intensive since the 1990s.
Lead researchers Adrian Leip and Monica Crippa, at the European Commission Joint Research Centre (JRC) at Ispra in Italy, spent a year compiling the database, named EDGAR-FOOD, and touted as “the first global food emission inventory.” They hope that the research, which involved the creation of a new database covering all aspects of food production, will help policymakers and institutions to more accurately target specific segments of the food industry in the global effort to cut carbon.
“EU citizens expect sustainable food with low greenhouse gas footprints,” Leip told Forbes.com. “Our hope is that EDGAR-FOOD will be helpful to identify where action to reduce food system greenhouse gas emissions is most effective.”
Transparent, robust and detailed data, Leip said, were needed for decision makers to understand the complexity of food systems in order to take the appropriate measures to drive down emissions.
“The share of greenhouse gas emissions linked to energy use and industrial processing is increasing,” Leip said. “The food system will therefore need to invest in energy efficiency and decarbonization technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, in addition to land-based mitigation technologies, within and outside the farm gate.”
Published in the journal Nature Food, the findings cover greenhouse gas emissions for the years 1990–2015. EDGAR-FOOD shows that 71% of food system emissions come from the use of land for agriculture, while 32% come from “land use changes,” including deforestation and soil degradation, activities that released 5.7 gigatons of CO2e emissions globally in 2015 alone. That’s more than the emissions produced by the entire energy consumption of the United States that year.
The database offers an unprecedented level of detail about food production emissions, showing, for example, that in terms of food distribution, packaging is the biggest emissions offender, accounting for 5.4% of food system emissions. The research shows that the production of paper and pulp for food packaging alone generates an average of 59.9 million tons of CO2e emissions per year.
Also revealed is the growing volume of emissions generated by increased energy use in food production, particularly in the developing world, where the use of mechanization and pesticides has grown rapidly to match and sometimes outpace advanced economies.
Food retail, too, is an increasingly important part of the picture: emissions from the sector tripled between 1990 and 2015, in large part thanks to the increasing demand for refrigeration to prevent food from spoiling.
Previous work on food emissions, such as that published in the IPCC Special Report on Climate Change and Land in 2019, estimated that food generated between 21% and 37% of man-made emissions. The EDGAR-FOOD database gives a higher range, of 25-42%.
“These [previous] studies were crucial in providing insight into food system greenhouse gas emissions, but the methodology and data basis did not allow to provide the same level of detail that EDGAR-FOOD does,” Leip explained.
Such insights could help guide such schemes as the European Commission’s Farm to Fork Strategy, a wide ranging platform introduced as part of the European Green Deal intended to improve the sustainability of food production at multiple levels.
“Food systems are in need of transformation,” Leip said. “Mitigation by reducing emissions from deforestation and on the farm is already very much in the focus of many mitigation policies. But our data show also an increasing significance of emissions from energy use, mainly post-farm gate, which shows the intricate link between the land and the energy systems.”
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