The global food system and our food practices

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Last Updated on March 3, 2022

The global food system and our food practices account for 21-37 per cent of the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions — says CSE and Down To Earth’s State of India’s Environment 2022 report.

The food practices of 7.8 billion people account for 21-37 per cent of the greenhouse gases emitted every year in the world due to all human activities.

It means our food systems (the complete process ranging from food production and consumption to its distribution and disposal) emit more than transportation (14 per cent of global GHG emissions) and energy use in buildings (16 per cent), and almost as much as industry (21 per cent) and electricity production (25 per cent).

In fact, in a scenario where emissions from all other sources are halted, emissions from the global food system alone will contribute enough GHGs to heat up the planet above the 1.5˚C target. 

These statistics and projections feature in the latest Annual State of India’s Environmentreport, released here at the 2022 Anil Agarwal Dialogue, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE)’s annual media conclave, by Union minister for environment, forest and climate change, Bhupendar Yadav.

These statistics, put together recently by a group of researchers from the UK and the US, may come as a surprise to many who think of plants as carbon sinks. Says Vibha Varshney, associate editor, Down To Earth: “While it is true that plants remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis, they also release large amounts of the gas when decomposing.

Food systems also contribute to emissions through other direct and indirect ways. For example, felling of trees to make way for farms and pasture removes a major carbon sink. Operation of farm machinery using fossil fuels, or manufacture of agrochemicals and fertilisers too emit GHGs.” 

She adds: “So what is the world doing about it? The EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet and Health – a gathering of 37 scientists from 16 nations – has set global targets for food systems that are environmentally sustainable and benefit human health. The commission has proposed a Planetary Health Diet that could reduce urban emissions by 60 per cent in 10 years.” 

The CSE-Down To Earth report refers to a September 2020 assessment by UNEP which says reducing land-use change and conversion of natural habitat alone could lower emissions by 4.6 gigatonne of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2e).

Adds Varshney: “A dramatic transformation of dietary practices is recommended to decarbonise the food sector. But it is easier said than done. The pathways to achieve that goal are not as clear as they are for, say, generation of electricity. Carbon emissions are integral to the biological system. Besides, one cannot stop eating.”

“There are also financial considerations at play. The most affordable of the EAT-Lancet Commission’s ‘planetary health diet’ exceeds the household per capita income of 1.58 billion people,” says Richard Mahapatra, managing editor of Down To Earth. Additionally, business interests that have played a role in shaping modern industrial food can make the transition difficult as well.

There are also fears that this focus on plant-based diets might prompt other emitters to shirk responsibility and put the onus of reducing emissions on the individual.

Says the Annual State of India’s Environment report: “The 26th Conference of Parties… in Glasgow, Scotland in November 2021 saw discussions on lowering the agriculture sector’s contribution to global warming. It remains to be seen how this affects food systems.”

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