Look at Transportation to Cut Food Emissions

Look at Transportation to Cut Food Emissions

In grocery stores within the world’s wealthiest countries, consumers are accustomed to seeing fresh, seasonable produce year-round -- but according to a new study published in Nature Food, the transportation of food has a far greater climate impact than previously thought. Nearly 20% of food-related emissions come from transportation.

When it comes to food systems emissions, the meat industry is the biggest culprit -- just one-fifth of the population is responsible for 46% of US food emissions, largely due to high meat consumption. However, the new study finds other foods also have a high environmental cost. Fruits and vegetables require carbon-intensive refrigeration for long-distance transport, making them responsible for approximately 36% of total food-mile emissions.

ENDEVR: Food Chain | Why You Should Know Where Your Food Comes From, August 13, 2021.

VERIFY: Yes, cattle are the top source of methane emissions in the US, December 14, 2021.

Why This Matters

Given that food systems are responsible for a third of global emissions, curbing food-related emissions related to production, transportation, and consumption is essential. As is the creation of sustainable, secure food systems. While wealthy countries are only just starting to feel the pressure of food insecurity, much of the world is as drought and famine have already been intensified by climate change. Sustainable food trade is essential to global security.

The Economist: War in Ukraine | the emerging global food crisis, May 17, 2022.

Bloomberg: Increasing Risks of Global Hunger, April 7, 2022.

CNBC: Will The US Face A Food Shortage?, April 20, 2022.

NASA: Climate Change Could Affect Global Agriculture Within 10 Years, November 1, 2021.

Cornell University: Climate change reduced farming productivity by 21% since 1961, April 1, 2021.

Different Diets, Different Outcomes

Not all diets are created equal. According to experts, if just that fifth of Americans mentioned above could adopt a diet in line with the other 80%, the country would eliminate the carbon equivalent of 661 million vehicle miles daily, Popular Science reports. And if the entire world were to phase out meat and dairy completely over the next 15 years, the carbon savings would be enough to offset emissions from all other sectors for 30 to 50 years. In order to cut emissions from food transportation, we must all look much closer to home -- if the entire world ate locally and seasonally, emissions could drop by one-third gigatonne.

Though such changes begin with individual choices, they would ultimately require widespread systemic change. Martin Heller, a food researcher, emphasizes the need for a mindset shift. He says that rather than Americans thinking of their diets as personal, isolated actions, they need to think of food systems emissions as the "secondhand smoke of diet choice.”

"You can’t think of cigarettes anymore as just one person hurting their own health, it’s inextricably tied to secondhand smoke,” Heller explains. "If we could start to see our dietary choice the same way -- as affecting other people’s health and the planet’s wellbeing -- maybe people could start to make better food choices.”

FT: What’s the real carbon footprint of your food?, September 2, 2020.

CNBC: Why The World Is Running Out Of Soil, June 5, 2022.

TRT World Now: UN report: 40% of all land on Earth damaged by human activities, April 28, 2022.

Tom's Outdoors: Changing Paradigms | Regenerative Agriculture: a Solution to our Global Crisis? | Full Documentary, May 10, 2021.

Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung European Union: Launch of the Meat Atlas 2021: Facts and figures about the animals we eat, September 8, 2021.