The world’s rich need to start eating local food to cope with the climate crisis, new research shows

The world's rich need to start eating local food to cope with the climate crisis, new research shows

Low-income countries contribute much less to the problem of emissions from food transport. Credit: Shutterstock

The desire of people in richer countries for a diverse range of off-season products imported from abroad is increasing global greenhouse gas emissions, our new study has discovered.

He reveals how transporting food between and between countries generates almost a fifth of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions – and rich countries make a disproportionate contribution to the problem.

Although the carbon emissions associated with food production are well documented, this is the most detailed study of its kind. We have estimated the carbon footprint of global food trade by tracking a number of food items across millions of supply chains.

Global trade in agricultural products and food has more than doubled since 1995, and internationally traded food provides 19% of the world’s calories. It has never been clearer that eating local production is a powerful way to take action against climate change.

Food travel network

The concept of “food miles” is used to measure the distance that food travels from the place where it is produced to the place where it is consumed. From this we can evaluate the related ones environmental impact or “carbon footprint”.

Globally, food is responsible for about 16 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions each year – or about 30% of total human production. carbon emissions. Sources of food emissions include transportchange in land use (such as logging) and the production process.

Our study uses an accounting framework that we developed in an innovative platform called FoodLab. It included an unprecedented level of detail, covering:

  • 74 countries or regions
  • 37 economic sectors
  • four types of transport – water, rail, road and air
  • more than 30 million trade connections: travel from one place to another.

Our results

We have found that global food mile emissions are around 3 billion tonnes each year, or 19% of total food emissions. This is up to 7.5 times higher than previous estimates.

About 36% of emissions from food transport are caused by the global transport of fruits and vegetables – almost twice as much as emissions from their production. Vegetables and fruits require temperature-controlled transport, which increases their food emissions.

In general, high-income countries make a disproportionate contribution to food mile emissions. They represent 12.5% ​​of the world’s population, but generate 46% of international food mile emissions.

Many large and emerging economies dominate the world food trade. China, Japan, the United States and Eastern Europe are large net importers of food miles and emissions – indicating that demand for food there is significantly higher than what is produced in the country.

The largest net exporter of food miles is Brazil, followed by Australia, India and Argentina. Australia is a major producer of a number of fruits and vegetables that are exported to the rest of the world.

In contrast, low-income countries and about half of the world’s population cause only 20% of food transport emissions.

Where to now?

To date, research on sustainable foods has largely focused on emissions from meat and other foods of animal origin, compared to plant-based foods. But our results show that eating locally grown and produced food is also important for mitigating food transport emissions.

Eating locally usually means eating food grown within a radius of 161 km from home.

We recognize that some parts of the world cannot be self-sufficient in food supply. International trade can play an important role in providing access to nutritious food and alleviating food insecurity for vulnerable people in low-income countries.

And food miles should not be considered the only indicator of environmental impact. For example, imported food produced sustainably may have a lower impact on the environment than local, high-emission food.

But there are many opportunities to reduce emissions from food transport, especially in richer countries. Potential measures include:

  • carbon pricing and import duties
  • investing in less polluting vehicles
  • encouraging businesses to reduce emissions in their production and distribution chains
  • planning laws that allow more urban agricultural projects.

Consumers also have the power to reduce emissions from food transport by adopting a more sustainable diet. For example, the next time you go shopping out of season – which may have been grown abroad or across the country – you might want to consider whether a local alternative might work.

The problem of emissions from food transport will only get worse with the growth of the world’s population. Governments, corporations and ordinary people must work together to ensure the production and consumption of food does not aggravate climate change.

Fifth of global food-related emissions from transport show research

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