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Global food system must change if nations hope to reduce greenhouse gas emissions

According to a new study, our efforts to combat climate change will be insufficient if we don’t tackle a major contributor to emissions – the global food system.

Climate change is an existential threat to our planet, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a critical component of any effective response. The global food system, spanning everything from production to consumption, is currently responsible for a staggering third of all greenhouse gas emissions.

The report indicates that the greatest increase in emissions within the food supply chain can be attributed to beef and dairy consumption, particularly in rapidly developing nations like China and India. Conversely, emissions per person have declined in developed countries, where the consumption of animal-based food is high.

Demand on global food system is increasing exponentially

This is of particular concern because, as the United Nations predicts, food demand will increase by a massive 70 percent by 2050. This escalation is anticipated due to the expected global population surge to 9.1 billion, further intensifying the pressure on our already strained food system.

In their study published in Nature Food on June 15th, a team of international scientists led by the Universities of Groningen and Birmingham warn about the alarming trajectory of emissions fueled by population growth and increasing demand for emission-intensive foods.

Shifting to plant-based proteins

Professor Klaus Hubacek of the University of Groningen, one of the authors of the study, has suggested a solution: “A global shift in diets, including reducing excessive intake of red meat and improving shares of plant-based protein – will not only reduce emissions but avoid health risks such as obesity and cardiovascular disease.”

Dr. Yuli Shan, another author from the University of Birmingham, echoed this sentiment, stating: “The agrifood system drives global land use and agricultural activities – contributing to around one-third of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas. Population growth, expansion of food production, and an increase in animal-based diets are likely to further increase emissions and squeeze the global carbon budget.”

All aspects of the global food system must be changed

Yanxian Li, a Ph.D. student at the University of Groningen and the study’s first author, underlined the urgency of addressing the issue at all stages of the food supply chain: “Mitigating emissions from production to consumption is critical if we are to limit global warming. However, widespread and lasting diet shifts are very difficult to achieve quickly, so incentives that encourage consumers to reduce red meat or buy products with higher environmental dividends could help to reduce food emissions.”

Data from 2000 to 2019 was analyzed for the study. The researchers discovered that more than 40% of global food supply chain emissions in 2019 came from just five countries – China, India, Indonesia, Brazil, and the USA. Furthermore, there was a concerning 14% increase in annual global greenhouse gas emissions associated with food over this 20-year period. Alarmingly, almost half of these emissions were from consuming animal-based products, with beef and dairy contributing to a significant 78% of the increase.

In terms of plant-based foods, the primary culprits were grains and oil crops, responsible for 43% and 23% of global plant-based emissions respectively in 2019.

Rice was found to contribute over half of all global grain-related emissions, with the highest emissions originating from Indonesia, China, and India. Soybean and palm oil had the largest shares in global emissions from oil crops, with Indonesia leading the world in palm oil emissions.

Big differences identified across geographical regions

Interestingly, the study noted stark differences in emission patterns based on geographical regions. North America, Australia, Latin America, and the Caribbean, for instance, exhibited high per capita food emissions mainly from red meat consumption.

Developed nations like Japan and Europe outsourced a substantial amount of food-related emissions due to heavy reliance on imports. Meanwhile, China, South Asia, Near East, North Africa, and regions like Brazil, Indonesia, South, and Central Africa saw substantial emission increase due to rapid population growth, improved living standards, or emission-intensive production, primarily from extensive land-use change activities.

The study highlights an unintended consequence of certain trade policies which, while trying to reduce local emissions, inadvertently increase global emissions by shifting production to other countries.

An example of this is the European Union’s Green Deal, which encourages less intensive agriculture within Europe, leading to increased imports from countries such as Brazil, the USA, Indonesia, and Malaysia, where agriculture is more emission-intensive.

Many different facets involved in climate change mitigation

This pioneering research underscores the fact that mitigating the impact of climate change requires more than just reducing emissions from industry or transportation. It demands a comprehensive examination of our entire lifestyle, from what we eat to where we source our food. The implications are clear: our current food systems and dietary habits are unsustainable, and we must make changes immediately.

Given the challenges associated with changing dietary habits on a large scale, the researchers emphasize the importance of policy interventions and incentives. These could include measures to encourage consumers to reduce red meat consumption or buy products with higher environmental dividends, which would help to reduce food emissions.

In essence, if we truly aim to protect our planet against the detrimental effects of climate change, we need to recognize and address the significant role our global food system plays in GHG emissions.

The journey towards a sustainable future is not just about shifting to renewable energy sources or electric vehicles; it must also encompass a global shift towards sustainable, low-emission food systems and healthier diets. As this study powerfully demonstrates, it’s high time we paid attention to what’s on our plates.

More about climate change and the global food system

Climate change and food security are two interconnected challenges facing our world today. As climate change intensifies, the stability of food production and supply becomes increasingly threatened, creating a complex cycle that exacerbates both issues.

Climate change primarily impacts food security through its effects on all components of global, regional, and local food systems. Here’s how:

Agricultural Productivity and Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Climate change has a significant effect on agricultural productivity. Rising temperatures, shifts in rainfall patterns, and increased frequency of extreme weather events such as droughts, floods, and storms can damage crops, reduce yields, and disrupt planting and harvesting seasons. For instance, heat stress can impede crop growth and reduce the nutritional value of harvested foods. Likewise, warmer temperatures can expand the range of agricultural pests and diseases, further threatening crop yields.

Food Prices and Availability

These disruptions in agricultural productivity can lead to decreased food availability and increased food prices. If crops fail or yields decrease due to weather anomalies, this can create scarcity in the market, driving up the prices of staple foods. This, in turn, can lead to food insecurity, particularly in low-income households that spend a higher proportion of their income on food.

Access to Food

Climate change can also indirectly impact access to food. Extreme weather events can damage infrastructure, making it difficult for people to access markets or for food to be transported from areas of surplus to those in need. In coastal areas, rising sea levels and increased incidence of severe storms can displace communities, further exacerbating issues of access to food.

Food Utilization

Climate change can also affect food utilization, which refers to how bodies use the food they consume. Changes in temperature and precipitation can increase the risk of water-borne diseases, which can lead to malnutrition and poor absorption of nutrients.

Socio-Economic Impact

Lastly, the socio-economic impacts of climate change can heighten food insecurity. For instance, if climate change affects a region’s primary economic activity (like agriculture or fishing), it can lead to job loss and reduced income, limiting individuals’ ability to afford nutritious food.

Addressing the issue of climate change and food security requires a comprehensive approach. This includes implementing climate-smart agricultural practices, developing climate-resilient crop varieties, improving the management of water resources, and reinforcing social safety nets for vulnerable populations.

Additionally, reducing global greenhouse gas emissions is crucial to mitigate the effects of climate change and ensure food security for all.

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