What do Food Systems Contribute to Climate Change?

What do Food Systems contribute to Climate Change? Some studies point out that food systems are the source of 24% of global greenhouse gas emissions[i], others have calculated food value-chain ‘cradle-to-grave’ estimates closer to 43-57%, while attributing 11 to 15% to farming (agricultural production)[ii].

Emissions from agriculture account for only a portion of the food systems’ overall contribution to climate change. Equally important is what happens from between the time food leaves the farm until it reaches our tables and is disposed of. The 43 to 57% estimates look at food production more broadly to also include emissions from land-use change and deforestation, as well as the processing, packaging, transport, sale and waste of agricultural products.

[endif]--Food & Climate, let’s piece the puzzle together. Our current global food systems, propelled by an increasingly powerful transnational food industry, is responsible for around half of all GHG emissions caused by humans: anywhere between a low of 43% and a high of 57%[iii].

LAND-USE CHANGE & DEFORESTATION – Worldwide, agriculture is pushing into savannas, wetlands, cerrado and forests, plowing under huge amounts of land. The expansion of the agricultural frontier is the dominant contributor to deforestation, accounting for between 70-90% of global deforestation. This means that some 15-18% of global GHG emissions are produced by land-use change and deforestation caused by agriculture.

AGRICULTURAL PRODUCTION – Most of these produced-on-farm emissions are generated by industrial farming practices that rely on chemical (nitrogen) fertilizers, heavy machinery run on petrol, and highly concentrated industrial livestock operations that pump out methane waste.

PROCESSING, TRANSPORT, PACKAGING & RETAIL – These days food is prepared and distributed using enormous amounts of processing, packaging and transportation, all of which generate GHG emissions. It is estimated that at least 5-6% of emissions are due to food transport, 8-10% due to food processing and packaging, around 1-2% due to refrigeration, and 1-2% due to retail.

WASTE – Not all of what the food system produces gets consumed. Approximately one-third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year — approximately 1.3 billion tonnes — gets lost or wasted. This is enough to feed the world’s hungry six times over. If food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter in the world in terms of greenhouse gas emissions (3.3 billion tonnes)[iv].

The solution to reduce agri-food driven emissions lies in small farming, natural farming, and decentralized food systems. We also need a shift back to local markets, a drastic cut in the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and to stop land clearing and deforestation. A global shift towards an agriculture that builds up organic matter in the soil would put us on a path towards the restoration of soil organic matter contents to pre-industrial agriculture levels within a period of 50 years because 25 to 40% of the current excess of CO2 in the atmosphere comes from the destruction of soils[v].


[i] Food Systems and Natural Resources Report, UNEP, 2016.

[ii] Trade and Environment Report, UNCTAD, 2013. The estimates are from Grain, an international non-profit research foundation that contributed to the UN report. It analyzed existing data on global emissions to determine the full extent of agri-food systems’ emissions. The article is available at https://www.grain.org/article/entries/5272-how-much-of-world-s-greenhouse-gas-emissions-come-from-agriculture.

[iii] ‘Food & Climate Change, the forgotten link’, Grain, 2011. This source includes the breakdown.

[iv] TEEB (2015) TEEB for Agriculture & Food: an interim report, UNEP, Geneva, Switzerland. Available at http://img.teebweb.org/wpcontent/uploads/2016/01/TEEBAgFood_Interim_Report_2015_web.pdf?utm_source=website&utm_medium=report&utm_campaign=TeebAgriFoodInterimReport.

[v] ‘Food & Climate Change, the forgotten link’, Grain, 2011, available at https://www.grain.org/article/entries/4357-food-and-climate-change-the-forgotten-link.


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