Food accounts for a third of global emissions; the circular economy has the potential to change that.

Food accounts for a third of global emissions; the circular economy has the potential to change that.

One-third of all global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are attributed to the global food system. Meanwhile, a third of all food is lost or wasted globally, and roughly one-third of the world's population will be hungry by 2020 — a sobering twist on the old "all good things come in threes" and a glaring reminder that our food system is in desperate need of reform.

Scientists, advocacy groups, and UN agencies are pushing for more inclusion of food system reform in national plans as countries prepare to revise their climate commitments created to fulfill the goals of the Paris Agreement – Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) — at COP26. Although some agricultural emission reduction targets are already included in current NDCs, they are frequently contained within larger land-use targets such as reducing deforestation rates. These, critically, overlook the huge mitigation potential of circular food initiatives like reducing food losses and waste or transitioning to more sustainable diets, which we will discuss later in this article.

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However, we must first understand how food contributes to GHG emissions in order to inform action, set targets, and build successful policies that not only address the core causes of the climate problem but also discover synergies with food security and broader sustainability goals.

GHG emissions hitchhike their way onto our plates from the farm to the fork

While no two food systems are identical, we can approximately trace food's journey along industrial agriculture value chains to see how its carbon footprint grows along the route.

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The impact of food on emissions begins long before it is planted or bred. Forests, marshes, and other natural habitats are frequently removed and transformed into land for pastures or the production of crops such as soy, corn, and palm oil when land is unavailable for agricultural activity. These are frequently grown utilising nutrient-depleting monocropping practises, mostly for use as animal feed (fueling our expanding hunger for animal products) or in the processing of foods. This conversion process emits a lot of carbon, eliminates vital carbon sinks – trees — from our global reserve, and jeopardises local biodiversity. Every year between 2010 and 2020, approximately 5 million hectares of forest — an area slightly larger than the Netherlands — were lost to agricultural purposes, resulting in nearly 36 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions.

Synthetic fertilisers and farm equipment must also be developed and transported to the farm gate for industrial farms to function. Long before we even set foot on the farm, the extraction of resources, production, and shipping of these completed products all contribute to the expansion of our carbon footprint.

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