Global food production is becoming more carbon efficient, but the emissions savings are far outweighed by rising demand for beef and milk products in rapidly growing nations.
Total greenhouse gas emissions from food rose from 14 to 16 gigatonnes of CO2-equivalent between 2000 and 2019. The trend was almost entirely caused by higher meat consumption, with the growth concentrated in regions such as Brazil and East Asia, according to a study published in the Nature science journal on Thursday (15 June).
The findings highlight the challenges of equitably decarbonising the global food system, which accounts for 30 per cent of the world’s emissions. Researchers said diets in developing countries are changing because people want higher living standards and more diverse chow. While the rich world’s per-capita food emissions are still markedly higher, the gap has been shrinking.
“Incentives that encourage consumers to reduce red meat [consumption], buy products with higher environmental dividends through eco-labelling, adding taxes or subsidies reflecting some of the environmental costs in product prices and education on actual food emissions could help,” the study said, but it conceded that “widespread and lasting” improvements are “very difficult to achieve within a narrow timeframe”.
The researchers, from China, Netherlands and the United Kingdom, analysed trade and emissions data for over 150 food products from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization.
They found that a “substantial” rise in animal-based products contributed to about 95 per cent of the 2-gigatonne increase in food emissions in the past two decades, with beef and dairy the top two culprits.
In India, the world’s most populous country, milk products from cows and sheep topped the emissions leaderboard. Dairy consumption more than doubled between 2000 and 2019, and accounted for nearly half the country’s 1.3 gigatonnes of food-based emissions in 2019.
In China – the second most populated country – beef was the main source of food-based greenhouse gases. Consumption rose 43 per cent in the same period, and contributed to nearly a fifth of the 2 gigatonnes of emissions in 2019, data showed.
These increases are not just because of population growth – per-capita emissions in many developing countries increased too, buoyed by higher consumption of animal products. In India, each person produced 19 per cent higher emissions between 2000 and 2019; the figure stands at around 60 per cent for China.
Beef also contributed to high proportions of food emissions in the Americas, Japan and Southeast Asia. The figure rose to 64 per cent for Brazil.
Meanwhile, the popularity of meat products, and their related emissions, is abating in some wealthy countries. Australia leads the drop at 38 per cent of embodied emissions, while Canada, Japan and the United States registered single-digit declines across 20 years.
The study noted that per-capita emissions from food are rising worldwide, but emissions from many developing regions, such as China, India and Sub-Saharan Africa, remain lower than the global average.
Associate professor Yuli Shan, a co-author of the study from the University of Birmingham, noted that intake of dairy products in Sub-Saharan Africa is “significantly insufficient”.
“Therefore, it is not feasible to forcefully demand a rapid cessation of consumption of red meat or dairy because eliminating malnutrition is an issue that needs to be addressed as well,” Shan said.
He added that there are significant differences in food emissions within a country too, often determined by income levels.
“We emphasise the need to delve into the emissions contribution, and responsibility for emissions reduction, of different population groups within a country, particularly concerning emissions-intensive products such as beef,” Shan said.
Globally, the biggest offset in food emissions comes from a drop in deforestation rates, the study postulated, with better conservation avoiding an additional 5.4 gigatonnes of emissions.
The effect has been most noticeable in Brazil, where a series of legal measures pulled deforestation rates down by 50 to 80 per cent in the early 2010s, compared to 2004. This trend has “changed considerably” under subsequent political leadership, the study noted. Deforestation rebounded under the two immediate past administrations, though the latest President, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, has vowed to end deforestation by 2030.
Global trade in foodstuffs had exacerbated emissions up until 2015, before productivity improvements in exporting countries meant certain food transactions helped save on carbon.
Nonetheless, the world’s main biggest food suppliers are not the most efficient, the study noted, pointing to how beef from Brazil produces thrice the carbon emissions of beef from western Europe. Stricter local emissions laws – such as those in the European Union – could be encouraging imports from more polluting overseas sources, the authors added.
Brazil is, in fact, the biggest exporter of food emissions at nearly 600 megatonnes, as it cranked up production to meet global demand for oil, nuts, beef and poultry. Indonesia’s emissions export also rose sharply, from just over 200 megatonnes in 2000 to nearly 400 megatonnes in 2019, from its booming palm oil trade.
China, meanwhile, stands out for onshoring almost 600 megatonnes of emissions from its food imports in 2019, more than thrice the amount in 2000. Most of the emissions come from oil crops and pork purchases.
Food exports to developing countries, many of which have high economic and population growth rates, are fast outstripping deliveries to developed nations, the study noted. Sales of animal products to developing nations increased by over 80 per cent between 2000 and 2019.
Shan said policies targeting entire food supply chains, such as scaling up production and reducing resource inputs with technology in developing countries, are essential for both managing living standards and the environmental impacts of food.
The United Nations estimates that food production must rise 70 per cent to feed the 9 billion people that could populate Earth in 2050. If left unchecked, emissions could rise by 80 per cent from 2010 levels.
Agricultural greenhouse gas emissions stem from deforestation, bad soil and fertiliser management, livestock manure, and enteric fermentation – commonly understood as methane from cow belching.
Efforts to reduce deforestation have seen mixed success, while campaigns to switch consumers from red meat to alternatives, including plant and cultured proteins, have faced strong pushback from meat industry lobbyists.
On the flipside, increasingly regular droughts and floods due to climate change are threatening to take bigger bites out of the world’s food basket, at a time when malnourishment is steadily increasing in the Global South.
“Mitigating emissions at every stage of food supply chains from production to consumption is crucial to limit global warming,” the latest study said.
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