Food systems responsible for ‘one third’ of human-caused emissions

“Food systems” were responsible for 34% of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions in 2015, according to new research.

The study, published in Nature Food , presents EDGAR-FOOD – the first database to break down emissions from each stage of the food chain for every year from 1990 to 2015. The database also unpacks emissions by sector, greenhouse gas and country. 

According to the study, 71% of food emissions in 2015 came from agriculture and “associated land use and land-use change activities” (LULUC).The rest stemmed from retail, transport, consumption, fuel production, waste management, industrial processes and packaging.

The study finds that CO2 accounts for roughly half of food-related emissions, while methane (CH4) makes up 35% – mainly from livestock production, farming and waste treatment.

Emissions from the retail sector are rising, the study finds, and increased by 3-4 times in Europe and the US between 1990 and 2015.

The authors also find that “food miles” contribute less to food emissions than packaging. The authors add that 96% of the emissions from transporting food come from local or regional transport by road and rail, rather than international transport.

‘An excellent database’

While feeding the world’s population of almost 8bn people is a fundamental task, it comes at a heavy cost to the climate. Food production uses up half of the Earth’s habitable land and a 2019 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimated that between 21-37% of global emissions are derived from food systems. 

(Last year, Carbon Brief produced a week-long series of articles, discussing the climate impacts of meat and dairy , outlining how changing diets are expected to affect the climate, and asking how we can change our eating habits to minimise our carbon footprint.)

The new study presents EDGAR-FOOD – the first database to cover each stage of the food chain for all countries, providing data for every year between 1990 and 2015. The database estimates CO2, CH4, nitrous oxide (N2O) and fluorinated gas emissions for each stage of the food system, as well as by country.

University of Oxford ’s Dr John Lynch , who researches the climate impacts at food and was not involved in the study, tells Carbon Brief that it “has often been hard to get fully detailed coverage across the whole food system” and that this new paper is a “great resource”.

Dr Sonja Vermeulen – director of programmes at the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), who also was not involved in the study – adds that this is an “an excellent database and set of analytic tools to signpost the way forward for food”.

Vermeulen notes that she published “perhaps the first estimate of total food system emissions” around a decade ago, estimating that food systems account for one-third of...