Off-farm activities are a growing share of food-system greenhouse gas emissions!

Nov 30, 2021, 12:41 PM

Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions due to land use changes such as converting forests to agricultural land have been decreasing over the past 20 years, a decline that has been counterbalanced by increased emissions - notably high in industrialized countries - from off-farm activities before and after food production according to a new study led by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and published recently in Environmental Resource Letters. 

The report, “Greenhouse Gas Emissions from the Food System: Building the Evidence Base”, estimates that food-system emissions amounted to 16 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide or equivalents (CO2eq) in 2018, an 8 percent increase since 1990. They now represent 33 percent of all human-caused GHG emissions. 

That, lead author Francesco Tubiello, a senior statistician and climate change specialist at FAO, highlights how the global food system represents a “larger GHG mitigation opportunity than previously estimated and one that cannot be ignored in efforts to achieve the Paris Agreement goals”. 

Governments around the world are pledging to reduce their GHG emissions and pursue carbon neutrality, and many have included mitigation targets for their agriculture sectors in their national plans. However, action in food and agriculture goes well beyond impacts on farms and ecosystems. Analyzing emissions trends through the broader lens of food systems offers additional insights and opens a range of possible solutions across the entire food production and consumption chain. 

The new study provides rich data sets that are being refined ahead of the UN’s Food Systems Summit 2021, with important components already available for consultation here . It considers GHG emissions linked to farm gate production, land use change at the boundary between farms and natural ecosystems, and supply chains including consumption and waste disposal, to offer a crisper and more granular assessment of trends at the global, regional and country levels.

Over recent decades food systems emissions, both in absolute and per-capita levels, are increasingly dominated by farm gate and supply chains processes, with the impacts from land use change decreasing as economies develop. Furthermore, the study highlights important differences among countries, with developed economies per capita food systems emissions nearly twice those in developing countries.

Finally, the study offers an operational map to better identify food-relevant components in the national emissions plans communicated to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change using Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) categories. Currently, countries report data in their Nationally Determined Contributions but lack a proper quantification of food systems emissions within National Greenhouse Gas Inventories (NGHGIs).

The research team that compiled the study also consists of experts from Columbia University and NASA, several UN agencies and numerous policy-focused research centers. 

The open-access report, which builds on another recent data-rich FAO study, offers the full spectrum of technical findings, and represents an important step for building a full database within FAOSTAT. 

One emergent theme is that optimal GHG mitigation strategies require a focus on activities before and after farm production, ranging from the industrial production of fertilizers to refrigeration at the retail level, as this is the area where emissions are growing fastest - due in part to a slowdown in deforestation. 

A Guest Editorial