The EU Joint Research Commission has produced a new global food emission database (EDGAR-FOOD) estimating food system greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from 1990-2015. It found that 34% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are generated by the food system.
- In 2015, 30% of EU greenhouse gas emissions (EU 27 countries range 25-42%) come from the food system.
- 72% of food system GHG emissions were associated with the land-based sector, divided into agricultural production and land use and land-use change activities (LULUC).
- Agricultural production contributed 40% to food system emissions. This includes all activities that bring foodstuffs to the ‘farm gate’ (including grazing, crops, fishing, aquaculture, fertilisers, on farm and fishing fossil fuel use, etc.)
- LULUC contributed 32% of food-system emissions. This includes carbon losses from deforestation and from degradation of organic soils, including peatlands. The majority of these would be due to animal agriculture, which occupies 83% of agricultural land (Poore and Nemecek).
- 28% of food-system emissions come from distribution (14%), (transport, packaging and retail), processing (4%), consumption (3%) and end-of-life disposal (9%).
- About half of the GHG emissions are CO2, mainly linked to land use change and energy, one third is methane (CH4) mostly due to livestock and rice production, but also waste management; most of the rest is emitted as N2O from nitrogen fertilisers.
- For most of South America, Africa and SE Asia the food system contributes over 50% of overall National GHG Emissions indicating lower fossil fuel emissions and higher rates of land use change, livestock and/or rice production.
A Few things to remember when reading this Research
- Most importantly it looks at only one metric – GHG emissions – and not land and water use, eutrophication and soil acidification, which together give a more balanced view of environmental impact.
- It also excludes recent research, which showed that bottom trawling produces as much emissions as global aviation.
- It uses the IPCC 100 year time horizon for converting methane to equivalent emissions of CO2. There is growing scientific consensus including in the Major UN Global Methane Assessment Report that a 20 year time horizon would more accurately reflect the contribution of methane to global warming. In many regions of the world including Europe and South America the majority of methane emissions comes from animal agriculture.
Since the research also does not pull out the collective contribution of livestock to food system emissions, it is worth remembering some of Poore and Nemecek’s conclusions. They estimated food system emissions to be 31% of Global GHG emissions, which seem to correlate with the EDGAR research;
- A global dietary shift to a completely animal-free diet would reduce food-related GHGs by ~49% and farmland by ~76%. This would indicate that animal sourced foods make up 17% of Global GHG Emissions.
- Just eliminating beef (globally) would reduce food GHGs by 33%.
- A dietary shift away from all animal products in the US, where per capita meat consumption is thrice the world average, could reduce food emissions 61-73%.
And from the Carbon Opportunity Cost of Animal Sourced Food Production on Land, 2020:
- “Extensive land uses to meet dietary preferences incur a ‘carbon opportunity cost’ given the potential for carbon sequestration through ecosystem restoration. Here we map the magnitude of this opportunity, finding that shifts in global food production to plant-based diets by 2050 could lead to sequestration of 332–547 GtCO2, equivalent to 99–163% of the CO2 emissions budget for 1.5 °C – approximately equal to the past 9 and 16 years of fossil fuel emissions.” Harwatt et Al
The EDGAR-FOOD database was published in the Nature Food Journal. The database contributes to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (Working Group III on climate mitigation), which represents the scientific basis for policy makers in the field of climate change.