Food production and carbon footprint

Have you ever wondered whether a single slice of bread with the appetizing scrambled eggs you have in the breakfast is adding to the greenhouse gas emissions or the variety of food items sitting in your refrigerator is somehow contributing towards increasing the levels of global warming?


Well, the answer to this question can simply be identified by the data recently published in the journal Nature food pertaining to which the researchers mentioned that one-third of total GHGs, which is about 34 per cent, is produced by the food industry.

It is shocking to even think of the fact that a significant part of the population is fighting against the global cause in one way or the other, with a possibility that most of them might not even know that the much-relished food industry is also a major contributor in the GHG emissions. 

The study assessed the estimated global data available from 1990-2015 of each sector involved in the food processing industry. The Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research (EDGAR)-Food by the European Commission categorised emissions data by sector which has been compiled by the United Nations’  Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). One of the major shocking revelations out of the many that came in limelight by the study is that - food generates an average of 2 tons of carbon emission per person annually.

The question,  which arises now is that how the food items that we consume every day are adding to the total greenhouse gas emissions? Well, there are a series of steps involved in food processing which begins right from the production of the food in its raw form by the agriculture sector and goes on until it reaches your plate, with an enticing and appetizing look.

Food system processes maximizing carbon footprint

Agriculture is, of course, the first step involved in the whole cycle of food production which comprises land usage and the use of fertilizers and pesticides which are unfortunately the key factors in the degradation of land in terms of fertility, water absorption and bacterial undergrowth across the globe. As per the data released by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the usage of fertilizers is the biggest contributor to carbon emissions amounting to a whopping 39 per cent of the overall emissions from the whole of the Food processing system. While the usage of land for the cultivation of food accounted for almost 38 per cent, it is expected to grow in the future as the global population and the demand for food is increasing rapidly. The expansion of the land use for human consumption for various interests, such as raising livestock and growing crops are creating significant impacts on the environment, which surely is not something to be happy about. As per the UN Red List, agriculture is pointed out as a threat to about 24,000 species worldwide while an estimated total of  28,000 species are at the risk of extinction as the natural habitat and ecosystem of the flora and fauna have been meddled by human activities.

The reports from the EDGAR FOOD state that the process of cultivation produces a high amount of greenhouse gas emissions such as methane, a gas that can trap 100 times more heat than Carbon Dioxide and accounts for 14% of emissions worldwide. Growing crops like rice and raising livestock gives a push to methane production and these crops alone, according to the report, accounted for 35 per cent of total GHG emissions in the food system. 

The constant improvements in the technological sector majorly in the developing nations have helped the global food processing industry in the transition towards an energy-intensive approach. Although Food production starts with agriculture, it takes much more than that for it to become a final product on our plates: Cultivating, harvesting, transporting the crop to storage houses, processing the crop, packaging and much more. All these make use of heavy machinery which again leads to GHG emissions in the atmosphere at an alarming rate.

According to the EDGAR-FOOD study, it is estimated that the storage and refrigeration of processed food globally account for 43 per cent of energy consumption by the supply chains in retail and supermarkets. The biggest contributors- Europe and the United States- have seen an increase in the retail sector by 4.2 and 3.6 times respectively between 1990 and 2015, which means there is a simultaneous increase in emissions as well.

The supply chain of the global food processing industry encompasses the packaging and transportation of the produced final goods from farms to our plates, which requires energy inputs and resources. According to the new analysis by the United Nation backed Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), almost 5.8 billion tonnes of Carbons are emitted from supply-chain processes. The robust data highlighted that the packaging industry is the biggest culprit as it shockingly exceeds the emissions contributed by the transportation and other supply-chain processes. The packaging industry accounted for 5.4 per cent of the total global emissions by the Food-agro system. 

Way to move forward

The current global food processing industry is increasing at a striking rate as the demand is going up with the rising population. To move towards an eco-friendly and sustainable food system is going to be a mammoth task because, unlike the other factors that are contributing to the increase in global GHG emission and temperature, the food industry is not getting the attention it should. 

We have to look for viable alternatives and resources involved in each step of the food production to mitigate the GHG contribution. There is a need for advancements in the agriculture sector such as eco-friendly fertilizers at a large scale, technological advancements in the types of machinery and the fuel they use for a transition to a renewable and sustainable method of cultivation and transportation.

As far as every individual is concerned, we can adopt some changes in our daily lifestyle to contribute towards the positive change in our diet and food choices. To start with, opting for locally produced organic food instead of packaged food items would be a simple and effective step.

According to an Oxford University study, individuals who are non-vegetarians are contributing almost twice to greenhouse gas emissions as compared to vegetarians. The study further suggests that every individual eating a meat-based diet can help in reducing dietary emissions by 50 to 54 per cent if they opt for a plant-based diet instead. 

The data points out some interesting measures one can take to move forward towards a sustainable future and to reduce the carbon footprint of the overall food-processing system. A global focus and contribution is the need of the hour and hopefully, we will be able to witness some positive changes in this domain soon.

Written By:

Manvender Pratap Singh

Manvender is a passionate content creator with a journalism degree who has a knack for developing human-interest content. In the past, he was involved with a National News Channel and a video production company and has experience in writing, designing and video production.

Leave A Comment