We Emit What We Eat

A newsletter about food systems, climate change and everything connected to them

The world’s food systems are responsible for just a bit over one-third of the global greenhouse gas emissions that are heating up the planet, according to a new study published this week in Nature Food that uses a new, more up-to-date and more complete database spanning 1990 - 2015. 

The study was a collaboration between researchers at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre in Ispra, Italy, and the Rome-based U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). They built EDGAR-FOOD, a global food emissions database which allows for “granular tracking of ongoing and future trends”, the FAO said in a statement. 

The best thing about the study is that for the first time, it provides a much more concise estimate of the emissions associated with the whole life-cycle of food production - farming, harvesting (or catching), transporting, processing, packaging, distributing, cooking, and disposing it.  

The second best thing about it is that it is not behind a paywall - it was for a brief moment but that has been remedied. Folks, I’m actually only half-joking here.

The whole study and the supplementary & source data are a treasure trove of information for those who want to really dig into the numbers, including country-specific emissions.  

TLDR (as it gets nerdier the further you go down):

  1. Food-related emissions are going up in absolute terms even if they aren’t in relative terms and we really need to reduce them. Like starting last year.

  2. Emissions from food distribution are on the rise but ‘food miles’ are less important than packaging and ummm… if you, like me, like wine, you might want to start a movement to bring the concept of Vino Sfuso to where you are.

  3. Refrigeration is responsible for nearly half of the energy consumption by the retail and supermarket sector.

The Findings 

  • In 2015, global food-system emissions amounted to 18 billion tonnes (or Gigaton or Gt) of CO₂ equivalent per year.

  • This amounts to 34% of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which include carbon dioxide (CO₂), methane (CH₄ ), nitrous oxide (N₂O) and fluorinated gases. 

  • Developing countries, including China, account for nearly two-thirds - 73% - of the emissions and industrialised nations responsible for 27%. 

  • The largest contribution - 71% - came from agriculture and land use/land-use change activities. The remainder? From supply chain activities: retail, transport, consumption, fuel production, waste management, industrial processes and packaging.

  • In industrialised countries, the majority of emissions - 53% - come from energy-related sectors such as industry and waste. 

  • In developing nations, agriculture and land use/land-use change activities dominates the emissions at 73%. 

  • The six top emitting economies spewed out 51% of food-system emissions in 2015. 

  • They were China (13.5%), Indonesia (8.8%), the United States (8.2%), Brazil (7.4%), the European Union (6.7%) and India (6.3%). 

  • Much of the increases in food-system emissions from developing countries occurred in China.


The Findings II - going deeper 

  • One reason for the significantly higher emissions in developing nations - beyond the fact that agriculture tend to be one of the largest economic sectors in these countries - is due to deforestation and degradation of organic soils, including peatlands. They alone make up 32% of total food-system emissions. 

  • Nearly 40% of emissions are from production stages that bring foodstuffs to the farm gate, including from producing inputs such as fertilizers. Distribution accounts for 29% but it is growing and expected to continue growing. 

  • The share of CO₂ emissions from the energy sector, particularly in food processing and distribution stages, jumped by 33% and 300% globally from 1990 figures. 

  • The emission of fluorinated greenhouse gases, which have a turbocharged effect on global warming and are used in refrigeration and other industrial applications, have significantly risen in industrialised countries.

  • Refrigeration is responsible for nearly half of the energy consumed by the retail and supermarket sector.

  • The increasing need for “cold chains” to keep food safe and fresh amid higher temperatures means their emissions - around 5% in 2015 - are likely to rise. 

  • Methane, a much more potent gas than CO₂, accounts for around 35% of food-system emissions, in both developed and developing countries, mainly due to livestock production (I’ll say this again - it’s the burps people, not the farts, that produce methane), farming (particularly rice farming) and waste treatment. 

  • In Thailand and Bangladesh, two rice-eating nations, the share of rice production to total food-system emissions is 39% and 40% respectively. This pains me terribly, as someone who loves rice - my nickname at one point was PBR (Powered by Rice).

The Significance 

  • Having a new database which allows for a detailed breakdown of food-related emissions would help countries to come up with “more effective mitigation strategies”, the paper’s co-author Francesco Tubiello, a senior statistician and climate-change specialist at the FAO, told me. Knowing the extent of the disease should hopefully help us to come up with a better treatment plan, right?

  • There have been estimates of food-system emissions before, the most recent being the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Special Report on Climate Change and Land which came out in 2019. In that report, the authors attributed between 11 and 19 billion tonnes of emissions per year to food systems. This latest study narrows the range significantly. 

  • The study should help shape some of the discussions happening ahead of the Food Systems Summit scheduled to be held during the United Nations General Assembly in September. 

  • The involvement of the JRC, a Directorate-General of the European Commission under the Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, could mean some of the findings could become part of the EC’s efforts on climate action.

Interesting Facts 

  • While food systems accounting for 34% of total emissions sounds like a lot, its share has been declining, according to the authors. In 1990, it was 44%. But that doesn’t mean things are rosy. Emissions continues to rise in absolute terms and that is more important than the reduction as a share of the emissions pie. 

  • The percentage of food-related emissions in developing nations took a nosedive between 1990 and 2015 too, from almost 70% to around 40%. Again, this is because of “very high increases in non-food emissions over the period” + significant reduction in deforestation. So not exactly a reason to rejoice. 

  • “GHG emissions from food distribution are on the rise but ‘food miles’ are less important than packaging,” according to the study, which might come as a surprise to many who swear by the ‘only buy local’ mantra.

  • Apparently this is because materials and energy required for packaging have high emissions, contributing about 5.4% of total food systems emissions, higher than transportation (5%) .

  • Not all packing materials are made equal, however. Researchers found emissions from pulp and paper > aluminum > metal > glass and packaging-related emissions for wine and beer (sniffs) are higher than others. 

  • In terms of ‘food miles’, emissions depend heavily on the mode of transport. Here aviation > road transport > marine shipping but aviation only accounts for a mere 0.4%. 

Have a great weekend! Please feel free to share this post and send tips and thoughts on twitter @thinink, to my LinkedIn page or via e-mail thin@thin-ink.net.

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