Historically underestimated, emissions from pre- and post-production activities weigh strongly on estimates of food industry’s total climate footprint. Mr. Tubiello (FAO): “Zero balance is no longer enough, we need to reduce the impact of all sectors.”
by Matteo Cavallito
In 2018, the last year for which complete data are available, the global food system produced 16 billion tons of CO2 emissions. That is 8% more than the amount measured in 1990. The numbers are based on a more careful survey whose conclusions were recently published by FAO. According to analysts, in particular, if we take into account all the factors involved – including pre and post-production activities – the food chain contributes to about one third of total emissions associated with human activities. This level is higher than previously suggested by some estimates assuming a 20-25% share.
— FAO Newsroom (@FAOnews) June 8, 2021
Less deforestation, yet higher emissions from the food supply chain
“The results are not surprising,” explains Francesco Tubiello, senior statistician, climate change expert at FAO and coordinator of the study. ” In fact, over the past few years, various estimates had been starting to align upward. Our work has led us to count individual national data – which are the result of different surveys and classification systems – and most importantly to include supply chain and consumption processes that had not been counted before.”
According to the research, emissions associated with land-use change total about 3.2 billion tons compared to almost 4.5 billion tons recorded in 1990.
Those related to strictly manufacturing activities (farm-gate) are estimated at 7.1 billion. The contribution of pre- and post-production operations (the so-called off-farm activities which include, among other things, transport and disposal) amounts to 5.8 billion.
The growth in farm-gate and off-farm activities compensated for the decline in land-use change emissions. Among the sub-categories, the booming of transport is impressive: despite representing a minority share of the total (about 500 million tons), its impact has risen 80% since 1990. For developing countries, the figure has almost tripled over the same period.
Off-farm activities are crucial in advanced economies
Differences between economies, the study suggests, are still evident. Nearly three-quarters of total food supply chain emissions are generated in poor or emerging economies (compared with about two-thirds in 1990). These nations also contribute to more than 90 percent of deforestation and land use change-related emissions (3 billion tons of the 3.2 total). Despite dropping considerably from 1990 levels (over 4.6 billion tons), in other words, deforestation remains a serious problem for these countries.
In the advanced economies, says Mr. Tubiello, “Pre- and post-production activities are highly relevant as showed by data on transportation, of course, but also household consumption and storage operations in warehouses and supermarkets, not to mention waste disposal processes. That’s why accelerating the substitution of fossil fuels and designing circular waste management strategies has become crucial.”
“A zero-sum game it’s definitely not enough”
While awareness of food industry’s climate impact seems to be emerging on a global level, a question arises whether the planet is doing enough to tackle the trend. “Agriculture is evolving and the world is experiencing a significant commitment to cut emissions, even if the growth of some components of the food system remains critical,” Mr. Tubiello explains.
However, he says, we need to consider a more important issue. “The decline in deforestation is primarily used to offset the emissions growth experienced in other sectors through the carbon market,” he explains. “Today, however, we can’t just pursue a zero-balance goal anymore, but we must definitely accelerate on overall climate impact reduction. In short, we need to lower emissions at every stage of the chain without relying on offsetting strategies in the food sector and in the economic as a whole.”