Food systems are responsible for 31% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and it’s not just agricultural production that’s the problem.
In 2019, total food systems emissions were 16.5 billion metric tonnes of CO2e (16.5GtCO2e). Of those, 7.2GtCO2e (44%) were within the farm gate, while 3.5GTCO2e (21%) came from deforestation and peatland degradation. However, the remaining 5.8GtCO2e (35%) were from pre- and post-production processes, ranging from fertiliser production and food processing to packaging, transport, retail and waste.
“Factors unrelated to on-farm activities and land-use changes already account for more than half of the carbon dioxide emissions from agri-food systems in advanced regions and their share has more than doubled over the past three decades in developing countries,” noted authors of the Food and Agriculture Organization study and dataset presented at COP26 in Glasgow this week.
They warned that the food supply chain is on course to overtake farming and land use as the largest contributor to GHGs from the agri-food system in many countries. A summary paper shows this has already happened in Europe, with pre- and post-productions emissions higher than those on farms.
The findings have consequences for policies aimed at reducing emissions, noted FAO senior statistician Francesco Tubiello, because “until recently these have focused mainly on reductions of non-CO2 within the farm gate and on CO2from land use change”.
FAO also showed that GHGs from food systems increased 17% between 1990 and 2019. However, their share in total emissions decreased, from 40% to 31%, as did per capita emissions, from 2.7 to 2.1 tonnes CO2e per capita.
Deforestation was the largest source of GHG emissions (3,058MtCO2), followed by enteric fermentation (2,823MtCO2eq), livestock manure (1,315MtCO2eq), household consumption (1,309MtCO2eq), food waste disposal (1,309MtCO2eq), on-farm use of fossil fuels (1,021MtCO2eq), and the food retail sector (932 Mt CO2eq).
Emissions from retail – including fluorinated “F gases” associated with refrigeration and with powerful climate impacts – have increased more than sevenfold since 1990 while those from household consumption have more than doubled.
In Europe, emissions from food systems decreased between 1990 and 2019 but their share of overall emissions increased (from 23% to 31%).
There were concerns that food and farming were being ignored at COP26 and in many countries’ climate plans. However, 45 governments have pledged “urgent action and investment to protect nature and shift to more sustainable ways of farming”.
Matt Williams from the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit said the deal “plants the seeds for food and farming to be considered serious parts of the route to net zero emissions”.
But critics noted that it failed to consider the reduction of livestock consumption, thought to be key in meeting net-zero targets. “We must stop skirting around difficult conversations and face up to the urgent need for change to sustainable diets – with higher quality meat but less overall, and a wider range of vegetables and pulses,” the Soil Association said.