Greenhouse gas emissions from the global food system are expected to add nearly one degree Celsius to the planet’s surface temperatures by 2100, based on current trends, scientists recently warned.
They pushed for a major overhaul of the sector – from production to consumption – that could reduce those emissions by more than half, even as the global population increases.
The Earth’s surface has warmed 1.2C since the late 1800s, leaving only a narrow margin for staying under the 2015 Paris Agreement climate goal of capping warming at “well under” 2C.
Even further out of reach is the aspirational limit of 1.5C, which science subsequently showed to be a much safer threshold to avoid devastating and possibly irreversible climate impacts, including coastal flooding, heatwaves and drought.
The global food system accounts for about 15 percent of current warming levels, but only a third of national emissions reduction plans under the Paris pact include any measure to cut carbon pollution from agriculture or livestock.
The three main greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide, which remains in the atmosphere for centuries; methane, which lingers only for decades but is almost 100 times more efficient in retaining the sun’s heat; and nitrous oxide.
Methane from belching livestock, rice paddies and rotting food accounts for about 60 percent of food-related emissions. CO2 from machinery, transport, and nitrous oxide from the excess use of chemical fertilizers, are responsible for about 20 percent each.
Any improvements in production methods for meat, dairy, and rice could reduce the additional warming forecast from the food sector by a quarter, the study said.
Adopting a diet optimal for human health across the globe, using renewables rather than fossil fuels for power, and slashing food waste, could cut another 25 percent.
The significant contribution of the global food system to warming levels and climate change highlights how much can still be done if humanity makes the conscious decision to change the way we live for the sake of future generations. It will certainly be difficult to review our dependence on meat, dairy and rice, but considering the impact of these consumption habits, it is something that we will have to give due consideration soon.*