From production to consumption the food production industry contributes between 19-29% of the world’s total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
These levels are unsustainable in the long term but reducing emissions can only be achieved with a collective effort from everyone involved in the food chain, according to a scientific statement by Teagasc economist Trevor Donellan.
“Reducing GHG emissions from food production globally, and in Ireland, will not be easy," said Donellan. "Food demand is tied to population and income growth, which will both continue to increase in the coming decades."
"In addition, agricultural GHG emissions are generated through processes that are more complex than in sectors such as transport, manufacturing or construction.”
The statement ‘Climate Change and the Food Chain’ was produced in conjunction with the Royal Irish Academy Climate Sciences Committee, which consists of climate scientists, economists and meteorologists.
The report explores the significance of GHG emissions produced through the agrifood chain, and the challenge of limiting those emissions while ensuring the industry can feed the growing global population.
Donellan pointed out that while methane from cattle, slurry and nitrogen fertilisers contribute to agricultural emissions, food waste throughout the world is equally responsible and needs addressing.
“The short term solution of reducing food waste involves actionsby individuals.This involves educating consumers about the fact that food waste has implications over and above the fact that it costs consumers money, namely that it is bad for the environment and contributes to climate change,” he said.
“It may be possible to change consumer behaviour over time so that we come to regard food waste as unacceptable in the same manner that consumers now regard failing to recycle of paper, plastic, tin and glass as an unacceptable behaviour.”
In contrast, however, food losses in developing countries require action by governments, explained Donellan, as it is a complex issue tied up with economic development.
“Reductions in food losses should emerge as the food supply chain in developing countries becomes more sophisticated as economies become more affluent."
"There are also issues surrounding the manner in which governments in the developing world hold precautionary food stocks (this is on the increase in recent years due to the volatility of basic commodity prices) and the spoilage that occurs when these stocks are not held in suitable conditions.”
The report does not advocate low intensity agriculture to reduce emissions from farming, but supports developing technologies to increase production using existing resources.
“The current focus on the total level of GHG emissions from agriculture tends towards limiting food production and this is undesirable from a global food security perspective. Longer term solutions rely on the provision of greater resources for food production research, to increase yields and to make crops resilient to climate change. Science is a slow process so action in this regard is needed immediately.”