Blog Post

The Role of Food Systems in Closing the Global Emissions Gap

As the world grapples with the increasing impacts of climate change, global policymakers need to take much stronger action to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases (GHG). This is the message from the recent UN Environment Programme’s Emissions Gap Report 2022. The report provides the stark conclusion that current national climate change pledges can only limit global warming rises by 2.4-2.6°C by the end of the century – far from the 1.5°C goal set forth by the Paris Agreement. To stand a chance of reaching that ambitious goal, global GHG emissions need to be cut by 45 percent by 2030.

Chapter Six of the report examines the role that the food system plays in both contributing to and reducing GHG emissions. The global agricultural and food sectors drive climate change through land-use change and biodiversity loss, reduction of natural resources such as water, and increased pollution due to fertilizer and manure run-off. The authors state that these factors alone could prevent the world from achieving the Paris Agreement goals. Currently, the global food system is responsible for one-third of total GHG emissions, with that number set to increase by as much as 90 percent by 2050 under current trends.

Further complicating the issue is the fact that food systems cannot only be looked at from an environmental lens; they must also be measured in terms of their ability to provide healthy diets and sustainable food security for the global population. Thus, policymakers and food system stakeholders need to identify and balance the trade-offs and synergies between these environmental and food security needs. This will require adopting a “food systems lens”, the chapter’s authors argue, that incorporates various sectors and includes a wide swathe of stakeholders.

The chapter identifies several pathways through which the food system can help better “bridge the emissions gap” rather than contributing to it. On the demand side, these include reducing food loss and waste and shifting diets toward more sustainable food products. Lowering consumption of red meat is one specific way that dietary changes can support lowered GHG emissions, as well as improve the overall health of diets and prevent diet-related non-communicable diseases like heart disease. While progress on shifting diets in this way has been slow, the authors highlight several regions where meat consumption has decreased and consumption of vegetarian diets has increased in recent years, including Europe, North America, Uruguay, and Ecuador. In addition, around the world, consumption of meat and milk substitutes has increased in recent years.

On the supply side, potential pathways include better management of soil and crop nutrients, more efficient and sustainable fertilizer and manure use, stronger protection of natural resources to guard against deforestation and land degradation, and adoption of more environmentally friendly practices in food transport, processing, packaging, and retail. Balancing the need for increased agricultural productivity (including the use of productivity-enhancing inputs like fertilizers) to achieve global food security with the need to limit the GHG emissions caused by agricultural production presents a challenge; however, the chapter highlights several regions where progress is being made. In India, for example, legume production has been encouraged to help preserve and enhance soil nutrients; legumes are now included in in some states’ public food distribution packages, showing political support for these agricultural production shifts. Similarly, in Vietnam, government policies call for controlled water management in rice production and the shift of land that’s inefficient for rice production to other uses in order to both increase land productivity and reduce land degradation due to inefficient rice production.

While these signs of progress are positive, significant challenges remain and much work needs to be done to speed food system transformation in ways that are sustainable for both food security and the environment. National governments need to look across sectors to ensure that policies are aligned and in support of GHG emission reductions and food security. Such policies can include setting national dietary guidelines that support reduction of meat consumption, providing transparent information about the carbon footprint of various food products, directing subsidies to support the production and reduce the consumer price of healthy foods, and investing in renewable energy sources and more efficient waste management. Local governments can also contribute to these improvements by strengthening linkages between urban and rural areas, aligning with national government policies, and including healthy and sustainable foods in procurement programs.

The private sector also clearly has an important role to play in the food system. Private sector actors should prioritize investments in new technologies that prioritize healthy and sustainable food production, increase transparency and information-sharing when it comes to environmental impacts like GHG emissions and programs to reduce negative environmental impacts, and reducing food waste by removing “best before” labels from products like fresh fruits and vegetables.

Finally, the international community – policymakers, private sector actors, academia, and the development community – needs to increase collaboration to share data and technological knowledge and reduce trade barriers and other policies that might negatively impact food security and sustainable food production and trade. Crucially, policymakers in high- and middle-income nations need to ensure that their policies do not come at the cost of increasing climate change impacts or decreasing food security in low-income nations. International cooperation must be scaled up to in order to share key knowledge and adapt new technologies to local contexts in an equitable and sustainable way.