Emissions from farming and food production are enough on their own to drive atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations beyond the targets in the Paris Agreement, according to a new study in the journal Science.
The world’s food system accounts for about one-third of today’s emissions, at about 16 billion tonnes per year between 2012 and 2017, The Guardian reports. “While emissions from some other carbon-intensive sectors, such as energy generation, have been slowing as clean technology is more widely adopted, farming has received less attention from policy-makers. But if emissions from food production continue on current trends, they will rise to a cumulative 1,356 gigatons by the end of the century.”
Those emissions would be enough to drive average global warming to about 2.0°C by the end of this century, even if all other sources were shut down.
“There needs to be more focus and more effort to reduce emissions from the food system,” said lead author Michael Clark, a researcher at the UK’s Oxford Martin School. “Greenhouse gas emissions from food systems have increased due to a combination of dietary changes—more food in general, with a larger proportion of food coming from animal source foods—population size, and how food is produced.”
The Guardian cites deforestation and the conversion of natural habitats like peatlands and wetlands as “major contributors to the climate crisis”, along with artificial fertilizers, methane from livestock and rice paddies, and food waste.
But the details of the problem also point to some of the solutions. “Halving of food waste would bring emissions within the carbon budget for 2°C,” The Guardian says. “More efficient farming, including better practices such as targeted fertilizer use, and agroecological farming that produces higher yields, would also help to reduce overall emissions.”
The study also points to the need to shift diets in rich countries where meat consumption is high and rising. “These countries are primarily those that are middle- or high-income where dietary intake and consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs is on average well above [health] recommendations,” Clark said, citing patterns in the UK, the United States, Australia, Europe, Brazil, Argentina, and China.
“Diets need to shift to contain less food in general, such that caloric intake is in line with healthier quantities, and less meat, dairy, and eggs, such that consumption of these foods is in line with dietary recommendations.”
To sufficiently reduce food system emissions, “people would not have to adopt vegan diets, as some have called for, but reduce their consumption of high-carbon foods that are unhealthy in large quantities,” The Guardian writes, citing the study. “Any such changes would benefit people’s health and help to solve the obesity crises stalking many rich societies.”