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Food consumption in rapidly developing nations causing largest GHG emission increase in global food supply chains, study reveals

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3 min read
AUTHOR: Fiona Holland
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Food consumption habits in rapidly developing nations are causing the largest increase of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions within global food supply chains, according to a new study.

Examining data linking emissions to consumers between 2000 and 2019, a group of scientists from the Universities of Birmingham and Groningen found that food consumption in the five highest emitting countries – China, India, Indonesia, Brazil, and the United States – had produced more than 40% of global food supply chain emissions in 2019.

China emitted 2.0 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent through food consumption, while India released 1.3 Gt CO2-eq, Indonesia generated 1.1 Gt, and Brazil and the United States produced 1.0 Gt respectively. In numerical order, China, India, the US, and Indonesia are the countries with the highest population in the world.

According to the study, the largest emission increase within food supply chains was caused by beef and dairy consumption in rapidly developing nations such as China and India.

By contrast, emissions per capita in developed areas with a high level of animal-based food consumption declined during the period. While these regions may not produce high levels of GHGs, the scientists note areas such as Europe and Japan outsource large amounts of food-related emissions. For example, trade policies such as European Union’s Green Deal are said to be boosting emissions in other countries by pushing for less intensive agriculture in Europe, but increased imports of agricultural products from nations like Indonesia, Malaysia, Brazil, and the USA, which all carry out emission-intensive food production.

Over the 20-year period, researchers found annual food-related GHG emissions worldwide went up by 14%, with a significant increase in animal-based product consumption contributing to 95% of the rise in global emissions linked to food. Consumption of beef and dairy was responsible for 32% and 46% of the increase in worldwide animal-based emissions.

Consumption of grains and oil crops produced 43% and 23% of global plant-based emissions respectively. Rice was responsible for more than half of the world’s grain-related emissions, with Indonesia, China and India producing the most emissions from consumption of the grain.

Soybean and palm oil had the largest shares in global emissions from oil crops, contributing 30% and 46% respectively. Being the region with the highest consumption of palm oil, Indonesia produced the most emissions from the crop, followed by Southeast Asia, Western Europe, and China.

The latest figures from the FAO suggest 31% of manmade GHG emissions come from the world’s agri-food systems.

Limiting meat consumption is key to reducing the global food system’s carbon footprint, said Professor Klaus Hubacek from the University of Groningen: “A global shift in diets, including reducing excessive intake of red meat and improving shares of plant-based protein – will not only reduce emissions but avoid health risks such as obesity and cardiovascular disease”.

Worldwide population growth and the growing demand for high emission foods like meat and dairy are expected to increase GHG levels further, the researchers stress, and finding new ways to encourage more sustainable food choices is essential to reducing the negative environmental impact.

As first author, Yanxian Li, a PhD student at the University of Groningen explained: “Mitigating emissions at every stage of food supply chains from production to consumption is critical if we are to limit global warming. However, widespread and lasting diet shifts are very difficult to achieve quickly, so incentives that encourage consumers to reduce red meat or buy products with higher environmental dividends could help to reduce food emissions.”


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