Food production, processing, distribution, consumption, and waste account for nearly a third of total global greenhouse gas emissions.
However, food systems are startlingly absent from most countries’ official national emissions-reduction plans, according to new research published by the Global Alliance for the Future of Food.
“Changing the way we produce and consume food could reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by more than 10 gigatonnes a year. This conservative estimate is slightly more than the combined emissions from global transport and residential energy use in 2019, and is equivalent to at least 20 per cent of the cut needed by 2050 to prevent catastrophic climate change,” it says.
Ahead of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on climate mitigation, the Global Alliance has comprehensively assessed how 14 countries — including China, Germany, Senegal, the UK, and the US — have incorporated food systems in their national climate plans, known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).
These assessments, country case studies, and a summary report highlight the opportunities for governments to use food systems transformation to drive significant greenhouse gas emissions reductions, as well as other health, environmental, and social benefits.
“Our research reveals some alarming gaps between countries’ stated levels of climate ambition and their lack of workable plans to realise the significant benefits from changing the way we produce, process, consume, and transport food,” said Patty Fong, Climate Program Director at the Global Alliance for the Future of Food.
“Without transforming industrialised food systems, it will be impossible to keep global warming below the critical threshold of 1.5 degrees and guarantee food security. Fortunately, our work shows that thinking about food differently opens up many pathways to lower emissions.”
Key findings from the 14 NDC assessments include: None of NDCs fully account for emissions from food imports, particularly those linked to deforestation and the destruction of nature and ecosystems.
New NDCs can take the lead from UK and EU pledges to tackle imported emissions, and the Glasgow Leaders’ COP26 pledge to end and reverse deforestation by 2030.
Germany is the only country that commits to move away from harmful subsidies that prop up intensive agricultural practices and contribute to higher emissions — such as chemical-intensive agriculture, intensive livestock production, and the production of ultra-processed foods.
None of the plans assessed include specific measures to promote healthy and sustainable diets, although this has the potential to significantly reduce emissions (by 0.9 gigatonnes annually), and provide other health and environmental benefits.
For example, although livestock accounts for around five per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions in the UK, there is no reference to livestock production in the country’s NDC.
One-third of all food produced in the world –approximately 1.3 billion tonnes — is lost or wasted every year. However, France is the only country whose NDC includes comprehensive measures to reduce food loss and waste.
China passed an anti-food-waste law last April, accompanied by a large-scale “clear your plate” campaign but this is not reflected in its NDC.
Food waste and loss in the US have a greenhouse gas footprint equivalent to four per cent of the country’s total emissions, however the country’s NDC doesn’t include measures to address this.
Colombia, Senegal, and Kenya have the most ambitious measures in place to promote agroecological and regenerative locally-led agriculture practices, which are less emissions-intensive than industrial farming methods.
Countries have been encouraged to submit revised NDCs ahead of the next global UN climate meeting, COP27, in Egypt in November. They must do so by 2025 at the latest.