Food supply chain emissions 'seven times higher' than estimates

22 June 2022

Supply chain emissions from food are between 3.5 and 7.5 times higher than previous estimates because the contribution of transport has been massively underreported, according to a study.

The study of 74 regions, 37 economic sectors, four transport modes (water, rail, road and air) and more than 30m trade connections (journeys of a single food from one place to another) found 19% of global food system greenhouse gas emissions are caused by transportation. 

Researchers used a framework called FoodLab to gauge “food miles” emissions at around three gigatonnes annually.

This far exceeds transport emissions of other sectors – industry and utilities transport, for example, contributed just 7%. Taking into account transport, production and land use change, global food chains contribute about 30% of total human-produced greenhouse gas emissions, or 16bn tonnes annually.

Some 36% of food transport emissions were caused by the global shipping of fruit and vegetables – almost twice the emissions released during their production. Vegetables and fruit require temperature-controlled transport which pushes their food miles emissions higher.

Additionally, high-income countries were greater contributors – despite being 12.5% of the global population, they generate 46% of international food miles emissions. Low-income countries, with around half the global population, cause only 20% of food transport emissions.

The largest net exporter of food miles was Brazil, followed by Australia, India and Argentina. Australia is a primary producer of fruits and vegetables that are exported to the rest of the world.

Professor David Raubenheimer, nutritional ecologist and co-author, said: “Prior to our study, most of the attention in sustainable food research has been on the high emissions associated with animal-derived foods, compared with plants. Our study shows that in addition to shifting towards a plant-based diet, eating locally is ideal, especially in affluent countries.”

Eating food grown and produced locally helps mitigate emissions associated with food transport. “Locally” means eating food grown within a 161km radius of one’s home.

The study suggests four further courses of action for businesses and governments to help reduce food transport emissions:

  • Increase carbon pricing and import duties

  • Invest in less-polluting vehicles

  • Cut emissions in production and distribution chains

  • Introduce planning laws that allow urban agriculture projects

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