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Food production is one of the biggest drivers of climate change

The food that we get on our table travels long distances and undergoes various modifications – from production to processing to distribution and, finally, consumption. Now, an international team of researchers have produced digital maps detailing the pressures that the global food system is exerting on the environment and climate.

“The food system is the biggest threat to biological diversity and one of the worst drivers of the climate crisis,” said study co-author Daniel Moran, a researcher at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU).

“There are lots of different foods on the planet and numerous ways to produce them. The environmental consequences are manifold and difficult to calculate. By gaining a better understanding of the negative impacts, we can achieve more environmentally efficient food production. Doing this will protect the environment and help ensure that we have enough food for the world’s population.”

The scientists have gathered data on 99 percent of all food production in water and on land reported in 2017, while taking into account the main types of pressure that food production exerts on the environment, including CO2 emissions, water consumption, pollution, and habitat destruction. Moreover, they have also followed the entire “life cycle” of food – from the sowing of grain or birth of the piglet all the way to the bread and bacon on the consumers’ tables – in order to measure the total environmental impact.

The analysis revealed that five countries – China, India, the United States, Brazil, and Pakistan – account for nearly half of the global environmental impact from food production. In the current study, the countries with the smaller environmental footprint have not been “crowned,” since they are generally poor countries that live with severe food shortages and widespread hunger. 

According to the scientists, 90 percent of all food production takes place on the ten percent of the Earth’s land area. Nevertheless, its environmental impact is highly variable according to the specific regions where processes related to food production occur. “In general, locally produced food is the most environmentally friendly option, but we were surprised at how much the production footprint of the same product varied in different countries,” Moran explained.

“A food product can be sustainable when it is produced in one country, but not in another. For example, it turned out that soy production in the USA is twice as environmentally efficient as in India.”

The researchers concluded that no particular diet can be considered best for protecting the environment, and can vary greatly from country to country. Moreover, they warned that, although local food is often sustainable, people should find a balance between their desire for self-sufficiency with all types of food and the most environmentally efficient production possible.

The study is published in the journal Nature Sustainability.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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