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Global greenhouse gas emissions from animal-based foods double that of plant-based foods

A new study published last month in the Nature Food Journal, is one of the first to account for net carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide emissions from all sub-sectors related to food production and consumption.

This comprehensive study led by the University of Illinois examined four major sub-sectors for plant and animal-based food emissions associated with food production processes. These were: land-use change, farmland activities, raising livestock and other activities beyond the farm gate, such as transport, from 171 crops and 16 animal products across the globe.

The study found that our food system accounts for 35 percent of all human-made greenhouse gas emissions. Across all regions, emissions equivalent per capita are greatest from the production and consumption of animal based foods. The authors used complex and robust methods of assessment to show very clearly that emissions from production and consumption of plant-foods are around half that of animal based foods, when we take into account the land use requirement, feed, methane production and processing requirements.

The majority of emissions from food production were animal based (57 percent). Only 29 percent of emissions were attributed to the production of plant-based foods. Beef, cow’s milk and pork were the biggest contributors to this tally, with rice being the most greenhouse gas intensive of the plant-foods. The top 10 plant-based foods in terms of emissions equivalents (apart from rice), were all relatively low, when compared to the animal based top 10.

Production and consumption based GHG emissions from plant and animal based food.
Source: Xu X, Sharma P, Shu S, et al research paper

What is of huge concern is that while emission calculations for land use, methane and nitrous oxide are in-line with previous studies, overall emissions calculated in this recent study are much higher than previously estimated by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in 2010, and more in line with the upper estimates provided by the IPCC. This really highlights the significance of food based emissions and the urgency of action now required.

The United Nations projects that over the period 2009 to 2050, food production will need to increase by 70 percent to meet increasing food demand…

he United Nations projects that over the period 2009 to 2050, food production will need to increase by 70 percent to meet increasing food demand. Increased food production may accelerate land-use changes for agriculture, resulting in greater greenhouse gas emissions, reduced carbon sequestration and further climate change.

With the exponential rise in food demand in mind, this study once again reinforces the importance of the need for an urgent change in consumption towards more plants, particularly in high meat-eating countries like Australia. Shifting to a whole food plant-based diet not only significantly lowers your personal greenhouse gas emissions, it also improves your health. A win-win for people and planet!

Key reference
Xu X, Sharma P, Shu S, et al. Global greenhouse gas emissions from animal-based foods are twice those of plant-based foods. Nat Food. Published online September 13, 2021:1-9. doi:10.1038/s43016-021-00358-x

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