A Third of Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions Tied to Food

If we want to rein in climate change, we will likely need to change what we eat and how we produce it.
Yuen Yiu, Staff Writer

(Inside Science) -- When it comes to climate change and greenhouse gas emissions, it is time to talk about the cow in the room. 

A paper published in the journal Science this week concludes that greenhouse gas emissions from food production and consumption would push us over the 1.5 C limit set by the Paris Agreement as early as the 2050s, even if every nation completely halted the use of fossil fuels from all other sources today. The results suggest that if we are to combat climate change, not only will we have to take gas guzzlers off the road and decarbonize our power grid, we will also have to eat less meat.

Food is one of the largest contributors of greenhouse gas emission from human activities, second only to transportation

According to the paper, the food we produce and consume (and waste) is responsible for roughly 30% of global warming. This is due to processes such as agricultural land use, the production and use of fertilizers, and of course, cow burps.

Unlike greenhouse gases emitted by cars and power plants, which can be reduced by replacing current technology, for example by switching to electric buses and solar power plants, the researchers suggest that emissions from food production are not completely unavoidable, and perhaps have received less public attention due to the lack of attractive solutions. 

But not all hope is lost. The researchers assessed the potential impact different strategies can have on our food-based carbon footprint, and the most effective action was -- you guessed it -- eating less meat. 

They calculated the estimates by using the dietary guidelines laid out by the EAT-Lancet Commission’s Report, which prescribes a diet with a focus on both personal health and sustainability. The report doesn’t suggest we all need to go full vegetarian. You can still chow down on a beefy quarter pounder once a week, and more if you switch to turkey or chicken or fish.

If reduced meat consumption is combined with other strategies, including more efficient land-use and farming strategies, higher crop yields, and less food waste -- and if we act fast enough -- we would still have a shot at limiting our food-related cumulative greenhouse gas emissions to current levels by the end of this century, when the global population is projected to reach its peak of around 11 billion.

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Yuen Yiu is a former staff writer for Inside Science. He's a Ph.D. physicist and fluent in Cantonese and Mandarin. Follow Yuen on Twitter: @fromyiutoyou.