account for more than one third
of global greenhouse gas emissions.
9 March 2021,
Rome - The world's food systems are responsible for more than
one-third of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, according
to a pioneering new study published in Nature Food.
Spanning from land-use change and agricultural production to packaging
and waste management, food system emissions were estimated at 18
billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2015. That's 34 percent
of the total, a share that is gradually declining - it was 44 percent
in 1990 - even as food systems emissions kept increasing in absolute
The study, co-authored by Francesco Tubiello, a senior statistician
and climate-change specialist at the Food and Agriculture Organization
of the United Nations (FAO) in collaboration with researchers at the
European Commission's Joint Research Centre in Ispra, Italy, offers a
treasure trove of data and, at least as importantly, presents a new
data base - EDGAR-FOOD - going back to 1990 and enabling granular
tracking of ongoing and future trends. The new tool, reliant on key
land-use data from FAOSTAT, provides a complete and consistent data
series spanning multiple sectors that will prove essential in the
design of effective mitigation actions and transformational pathways
to sustainable food systems.
It also offers more precise understanding and estimate of the climate
effects of food production, distribution and consumption ahead of the
landmark United Nations Food Systems Summit 2021 later this year. The
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change (IPCC) Special Report on
Climate Change and Land recently attributed to food systems between 11
and 19 billion tonnes of emissions per year, a wide range underscoring
the need to narrow our knowledge gaps.
The EDGAR-FOOD data base represents a milestone for understanding how
the global food system has developed. It enables assessments of how
changes in consumer behavior or technological evolution may impact
food-system GHG emissions and can serve as a precious tool for
researchers focusing on specific sectors as well as policy makers
tasked with designing mitigation strategies that don't merely displace
emissions to other sectors.
FAO has powerful emissions data sets on agriculture and land use and
is building a new one to support the work of the UN Food Systems
Some two-thirds of the emissions from global food systems come from
the land-based sector, comprising agriculture, land use and land use
changes. That figure is higher for developing countries, but also
declining significantly in step with decreasing deforestation and
increasing downstream activities such as food processing and
In terms of their share of all anthropogenic GHG emissions, food
systems of industrialized countries are broadly stable at around 24
percent, while in developing countries it has decreased notably -
partly due to very high increases in non-food emissions - to 39
percent in 2015 from 68 percent in 1990.
Top emitters are, in order: China, Indonesia, United States of
America, Brazil, European Union and India.
Production stages that bring foodstuffs to the farm gate - including
inputs such as fertilizers - are now the leading contributor to
overall food-system emissions, constituting 39 percent of the total.
Land use and related factors contribute 38 percent, while distribution
accounts for 29 percent, a share that is growing and expected to
continue to do so.
Methane (CH4) accounts for around 35 percent of food system GHG
emissions, broadly the same in developed and developing countries, and
mostly stems from livestock raising and rice cultivation.
The research highlights how global food systems are becoming more
energy intensive, reflecting trends in the retail, packaging,
transport and processing sectors, whose emissions are growing rapidly
in some developing countries. Industrialized countries, meanwhile,
have increased emission of fluorinated greenhouse gases - which have a
turbocharged effect on global warming - used in refrigeration and
other industrial applications. Refrigeration is responsible for nearly
half of the energy consumption by the retail and supermarket sector,
whose emissions have grown more than fourfold in Europe since 1990.
Worldwide "cold chain" activities account for around 5 percent of
global food-system emissions, a figure expected to increase.
It also revealed that packaging now contributes about 5.4 percent of
global food-system emissions, more than any other supply-chain factor
including transportation. However, emissions intensity varies notably
by product, with wine and beer accounting for a significant share of
packaging impacts while bananas and beet sugar have higher
On average, global per capita annual food-related emissions declined
from 1990 to 2015 by around one third to 2 tonnes of CO2 equivalent.
That figure should not be understood as the same as a "consumer
footprint" as these vary according to specific dietary patterns, but
it can be used to benchmark national mitigation efforts to reduce GHG
emissions from the food system as a whole.