A new study has claimed that carbon emissions from food production are vastly underestimated, but the lead author of the study is optimistic that the industry can address its environmental problems.
The new global analysis, developed jointly by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, NASA, New York University, and experts at Columbia University, claims that a third of global emissions can be traced to food production, a rise of eight percent since 1990.
According to the research, the conversion of natural ecosystems to agricultural croplands or pastures remains the largest single source of emissions – on their own these account for about one-fifth of all emissions but taking account of other factors such as manufacturing, processing, storage, transport, waste disposal, and environmental impacts, that figure can rise to nearly 40 percent.
It wasn’t all bad news, however, although total emissions from food systems rose, changing technologies have meant that per capita emissions actually decreased, and the better news is the report identified that better data can help lead to better policies for cutting emissions and protecting the food system from a changing climate.
Lead author of the analysis, Francesco Tubiello noted that he is ultimately optimistic about the potential food businesses have. He recommends a reduction in the kind of processes that are destroying current ecosystems.
“Looking at the entire food system can not only illuminate opportunities to reduce emissions but also improve efficiency,” he said.
It would appear that plant-based might not be the cure-all environmentally. While food brands are busy pumping out plant-based products to sell to consumers who say they want to cut their meat consumption for environmental reasons.
“Consumers right now are sort of blindly doing this,” suggested Tubiello.
“I don’t think we’re going to save the planet by shifting completely to a plant-based diet because when you do the calculations on how much land would be needed to do that, I’m not sure it completely works.”
Better land management and more regenerative agriculture practices are key to reduce the environmental impact of food production. Suggestions from the report include tackling food waste and investing in better storage and supply chains.
But a greener path needs government intervention to be successful.
“All of this is in the context of governments’ providing a level playing field for farmers and the food industry,” explained Mark Driscoll, founder and director of Tasting the Future.
“That requires subsidy systems to support farmers to produce more food through regenerative practices and for governments to provide a level playing field in order for that transition to occur.”