As the Biden administration finalizes its climate change action plan ahead of the president’s climate summit on April 22 (Earth Day), it should focus on the tremendous opportunities for emissions reductions that lie in the food system. Many measures that would reduce food system emissions would also improve public health, strengthen rural livelihoods, and protect natural ecosystems.
Food system emissions are enormous. A study published in Nature last month found that 34% of global greenhouse emissions come from the food system. In the U.S., the figure is 22%. These emissions come from all parts of the food system, including food production, transport, processing, packaging, storage, cooking and disposal.
When it comes to reducing food system emissions, win-win opportunities abound. Reducing food loss and waste can cut emissions while combatting hunger and protecting natural ecosystems. Small shifts in diets can cut emissions while improving public health. Climate-smart farming can cut emissions while enriching rural America.
We recommend federal action in 11 areas. Our preliminary analysis suggests that these actions could reduce emissions by nearly 400 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) in 2030 and more in the years beyond.
A comprehensive approach for reducing greenhouse emissions from the food system
If global food system emissions continue to increase at their current pace, meeting the Paris Agreement’s goals would be impossible even if non-food system emissions fell to zero immediately.
Strategies for reducing food system emissions are often divided into supply-side and demand-side solutions. Supply-side solutions focus on food producers and distributors, identifying opportunities to cut emissions related to agricultural land use patterns, crop and livestock production techniques, and food supply chains. Demand-side (or “consumption-based”) solutions, such as reducing food waste and encouraging shifts in dietary patterns, focus on pathways for reducing emissions through changes at the consumer level. Both have a vital role to play in achieving a net-zero food sector.
We recommend focusing on three priority topics, which have impacts that cut across the food system:
1. Reducing food loss and waste
Roughly a third of food that is produced is never eaten. Since 2015, the US Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency have had a goal of cutting food loss and waste in half by 2030. Meeting that goal could save energy that goes into producing lost and wasted food, and reduce methane emissions from food waste in landfills — both of which contribute significant amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing food loss and waste could also reduce the amount of land that is needed to produce food, taking pressure off of the country’s grasslands, which emit greenhouse gases when converted into farmland.
Options for reducing food loss and waste include standardizing date labels on food containers, launching consumer education campaigns, promoting better food packaging, encouraging smaller portion sizes, supporting activities that glean leftover crops from fields that have already been harvested, and incentivizing donations from commercial retailers and institutional actors to food banks and charities. Policies that foster secondary markets for surplus food have the potential to both reduce waste and create new streams of income for farmers and food retailers alike. Food waste policies should be pursued in tandem with policies that promote more efficient refrigeration, since efforts to reduce food waste could also increase energy use from household and commercial refrigeration systems.
2. Promoting healthy and sustainable diets
Small dietary shifts — without depriving anyone of the food they like best — can make a big difference in fighting climate change. Promoting plant-based diets, which are rich in whole grains, legumes, nuts, fruits and vegetables, could help to effectively curb climate change while improving health outcomes in countries like the United States. The impact of plant-based diets on type 2 diabetes and heart disease alone provides a compelling reason to encourage changes in American eating habits, as poor diet remains the number one risk factor associated with morbidity and mortality in the U.S.
Policies that encourage healthy and sustainable diets — such as shifts in dietary guidelines, improvements in public food procurement and placing sustainability labels on products — could be enhanced by programs that promote the agricultural production of more sustainable protein sources. Federal investment in research and development for alternative proteins can catalyze the transition to more sustainable diets, since nearly 50% of the carbon footprint of the average American diet is tied to beef. At the same time, farmers and ranchers that depend on animal production must be enlisted in the fight against climate change so that all producers can benefit from the food system of the future.
3. Climate-smart agriculture
Climate-smart agriculture can be a win-win for climate and for farmers. Incentivizing practices such as cover cropping, conservation tillage, and more efficient synthetic fertilizer use can enable farmers to store tremendous amount of carbon in agricultural soils, while also investing in farmers as key players in a carbon neutral future. Improving manure management practices for confined dairy and swine operations could protect vulnerable communities from air and water pollution while mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.
Policies can also promote climate-smart agricultural practices by establishing a “carbon bank” as a funding source to scale up the USDA’s current incentives programs. The carbon bank could designate the aforementioned practices as “high priority” items across all states and USDA regions, invest in a multi-model approach to assess existing soil carbon levels and determine payment rates, and facilitate the growth of markets that provide inputs into sustainable farming systems.
Food system measures offer enormous potential to combat the climate crisis while also improving public health, strengthening rural communities and protecting natural ecosystems. Mitigation measures should be coordinated across all stages of the food system to help ensure a more productive, sustainable and resilient food system for all.
Data for the figures in this piece came from the following sources:
Commercial refrigeration: Based on a study showing the impact of low-GWP refrigerants and more efficient supermarket refrigeration systems.
Conservation tillage: Based on a study of the soil carbon sequestration potential of no-till practices in the United States.
Federal food procurement: Based on estimates of annual food spending by the USDA, DOD, and BOP, and assuming federally procured meals have the same carbon footprint per dollar spent as the median income U.S. household.
Fertilizer management: Based on Natural climate solutions for the United States by Fargione et al., (2018)
Food waste: Based on a study of the carbon footprint of food waste in the U.S.
Grassland conversion: Based on a Natural climate solutions for the United States by Fargione et al., (2018)
Grazing optimization: Based on a USDA report discussing the impact of appropriate grazing on poorly managed rangelands.
Household refrigeration: Based on estimates of the impact of updating household refrigerator and freezer standards.
Manure management: Based on USDA estimates about better manure management in confined dairy and swine operation.
Plant-rich diets: Based on a study of the climate impact of substituting meat protein with plant protein in the U.S.
Uncertainties represent the authors judgement given uncertainties expressed in source data and other relevant literature.
Kevin Karl is a research associate at the Center on Global Energy Policy. He focuses on the intersection of food systems and climate change.
David Sandalow is the inaugural fellow at the Center on Global Energy Policy and co-director of the Energy and Environment Concentration at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University.