This week marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. With it comes a perennial focus on climate change, which is a theme of increasing concern for the food industry. Whether one agrees or disagrees that mankind is responsible for rising global temperatures over the last century, there is broad consensus among scientists that our food system stands to experience significant consequences if humans fail to quickly curb greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
This resource is intended to serve as a starter guide to help industry stakeholders understand how the food and agriculture sectors contribute to climate change, what they can do to combat it, and examples of organizations that are leading the way.
How our food contributes to climate change
Agriculture contributes to 24% of all GHG emissions worldwide, two-thirds of which comes from livestock. The scale of inputs needed to sustain modern agriculture and a growing population (with developed world consumption habits) is one of the reasons that food systems are such a large contributor. Some impactful stats on a global scale:
- The food sector is responsible for 70% of water use and about 30% of energy consumption
- Approximately 80% of deforestation is due to agriculture (deforestation accounts for 10-11% of GHG emissions)
- 3-5% of natural gas production is used to produce nitrogen-based fertilizers, and in 2010, about 100 million metric tons of these fertilizers were used (compared to less than 3 million metric tons in 1950)
- Food transportation represents 11% of lifecycle emissions for food
- Food type is important — on average, red meat is around 150% more GHG intensive than poultry or fish
How much does food waste contribute to global GHG emissions?
- According to Project Drawdown, reducing food waste “represents one of the greatest possibilities for individuals, companies, and communities to contribute to reversing global warming.”
- Globally, food loss and waste generate about 8% of GHG emissions caused by humans, which if represented as a country, would be the 3rd largest emitter of GHGs behind China (25.9%) and the United States (14.8%).
How much food is wasted?
- About one-third (1.3 billion tons) of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted every year. Economically, global food loss and waste results in $936 billion in annual losses across the food value chain (with some more recent updates projecting this to be significantly higher).
- The resources embedded within production amplify the contribution of this waste to climate change: the production of lost and wasted food crops accounts for 24% of total freshwater use in crop production, 23% of total cropland area, and 23% of fertilizer use.
- Simultaneously, over 800 million people - one in nine globally - are not getting enough to eat.
How will climate change impact food production?
- These already staggering losses will be an even greater challenge in the face of a changing climate. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that global food production must increase by 60% to keep pace with population increase (expected to reach 9.8 billion people by 2050, up from 7.7 billion today).
- The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts widespread crop yield declines of 10-25% by 2050 due to increased drought, pests, disease, and other climate forces. Resource efficiency will be key to combating this issue.
What the industry can do to combat climate change
A number of recent reports, captured below, dig into how industry players across the food value chain can limit contributions to climate change. Notably, the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and Target 12.3 advocates for cutting food loss and waste per capita in half through promoting higher consumption of plant-based foods amongst consumers and increasing agricultural productivity, while maximizing resource efficiency and minimizing GHG emissions. Industry stakeholders should seek to understand how their unique position in the value chain will contribute to (or can mitigate the effects of) climate change.
Whether acting as a grower-shipper, processor, distributor, retailer, or foodservice operator, an important first step is to invest in ongoing corporate sustainability measurement, reporting, and assessment. Check out our Resources page for tips on how to successfully kick-off a sustainability assessment and reporting initiative or to leverage data to inform your efforts.
Next up: don’t tackle this alone. There is a tremendous opportunity for collaboration across the food and agriculture industries to take a private-sector, systems-based approach to address climate change. Below are some of our favorite organizations and entities that offer relevant guidance and resources:
- NGOs: World Resources Institute, ReFED, Natural Resources Defense Council, World Wildlife Fund, Environmental Defense Fund, CDP, World Economic Forum Circular Economy
- Academic Institutions: Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, Ohio State University Food Waste Collaborative, North Carolina State University Center for Environmental Farming Systems
- Industry Partnerships: Consumer Goods Forum, Champions 12.3, Climate Collaborative, Sustainable Food Trade Association, Food Waste Reduction Alliance
Companies leading the way
Thankfully, companies across the food value chain are making commitments to mitigate climate change. In many instances, actions that reduce a company’s carbon footprint are also benefiting their bottom-line. In honor of Earth Day 2020, here are a few examples of commitments made in the last couple of months.
- Danone: The global leader in dairy and plant-based products has committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2050. On top of that, its Horizon Organic brand committed in March 2020 to be “the first national dairy brand to become carbon positive across its full supply chain” by 2025.
- Numi Tea: This family-owned tea distributor committed in April 2020 to become carbon neutral by 2023 through a combination of renewable energy sourcing and carbon offsets.
- General Mills: The global food company announced a new regenerative agriculture pilot in January 2020 as part of the company’s 2025 commitment to lower GHG emissions by 28% across its entire value chain.
How is your company addressing its climate impact? Share your story or other examples of great companies’ efforts with us on Twitter. If interested in digging deeper, check out some of our older blog posts on food and sustainability and our Beginner’s Guide to Food Waste.