Food production emissions account for over a third of 2015 global emissions

9 March 2021 

Food systems accounted for 34 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions in 2015, according to a new study. 

71 per cent of these emissions came from agriculture and associated land use and land-use change activities (LULUC), which include deforestation and land degradation. 

The study published yesterday in Nature Food found that the remaining emissions from the food sector came from retail, transport, consumption, fuel production, waste management, industrial processes and packaging. 

Retail emissions are rising, according to the paper, and increased by roughly three to fourfold in Europe and the US between 1990 and 2015. 

The authors also stressed that while emissions from food distribution are on the rise, pollution generated from “food miles”, meaning the distance food travels, are less important than packaging-generated emissions. 

Additionally, they revealed that 96 per cent of emissions from food transportation come from local or regional transport by road and rail rather than international transport. 

In terms of the make-up of these greenhouse gas emissions, the authors found that carbon dioxide made up roughly half of the total emissions, while methane accounted for roughly a third. 

Methane is a far more potent heat-trapping gas than carbon dioxide, and mainly comes from livestock production, farming and waste treatment from within the food sector. 

Food production uses half of the Earth’s habitable land, and according to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation, meat and dairy specifically make up just under 15 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions.

Agricultural emissions in Ireland 

To date, agriculture is Ireland’s largest emitting sector, accounting for 37.7 per cent of total emissions according to the latest EPA data

Emissions from agriculture are expected to increase slightly for 2020, up by 0.4 per cent when compared to 2019. 

The 2020 emissions projection from the EPA and the Sustainable Energy Authority Ireland (SEAI) attribute this to an increase in fuel and nitrogen fertiliser use. 

Provisional data also revealed that there’s been an increase in our cattle population of 1.5 per cent when comparing June 2020 to June 2019, with a 4.2 per cent increase in the number of dairy cows. 

From 2014 to 2019, the data shows that dairy cow numbers increased by almost a quarter and milk production rose by 41 per cent. 

The EPA has previously cited the Food Wise 2025 strategy and the removal of dairy quotas in 2015 as key factors in the industry’s growth. 

About the Author

Kayle Crosson