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Food systems account for more than a third of global GHGs


New York – More than one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activity can be attributed to the way we produce, process and package food, a UN-backed study published on Tuesday has revealed.

Food system emissions were estimated at 18 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2015, or 34 per cent, though down from 44 per cent in 1990, indicating gradual decline even as these emissions kept increasing.

The UN report was produced collaboration with European Commission researchers.

It highlights how global food systems are becoming more energy intensive, reflecting trends in retail, packaging, transport and processing, whose emissions are growing rapidly in some developing countries.

Roughly two-thirds of food system emissions come from agriculture, land use and changes in land use. The figure is higher for developing countries but is also declining significantly as deforestation decreases and food processing, refrigeration and other downstream activities increase.

China, Indonesia, the United States, Brazil, the European Union and India are the top emitters.

Production processes, which includes inputs such as fertilisers, are the leading contributor to overall food-system emissions, or 39 per cent of the total.  Land use accounts for 38 per cent and distribution contributes 29 per cent, which is expected to continue growing.

Methane from livestock raising and rice cultivation accounts for 35 per cent of food system greenhouse gas emissions and is broadly the same in both developed and developing countries, the UN says. 

Meanwhile in industrialised countries, emissions from fluorinated greenhouse gases, used in refrigeration, for example, have had a turbocharged effect on global warming, according to the report.

Refrigeration is responsible for nearly half of the energy consumption by the retail and supermarket sector, whose emissions have grown more than fourfold in Europe since 1990. Globally, the figure is about five percent of global food-system emissions but is expected to increase. 

Packaging also accounts for a similar share of the emissions, or some 5.4 per cent, which is more than transportation or other supply chain factors.