Producing food for the world's 7.6 billion people creates about 13.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions per year, plus other major environmental effects. A new study published in Science today attempts to take stock of the global food system's environmental footprint, and proposes how to reduce it.
Between the lines: The study makes the point that greater gains can be made by altering human dietary habits than by changing food production practices. If people were to switch to plant-based diets, we would reduce food's emissions by up to 70% and slash the amount of land devoted to agricultural use by about three-quarters.
"This says something new — it will always be better to consume vegetable proteins/milks, rather than trying to purchase sustainable animal products."— Study co-author Joseph Poore, University of Oxford
The study: The researchers claim to provide the most comprehensive database ever assembled on how different production practices and locations affect the environmental footprint of more than two dozen foods.
- The researchers included information on a staggering 38,700 farms, as well as 1,600 food processors, packagers, and retailers in 119 countries.
- The modern food supply chain causes 26% of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.
- Freshwater aquaculture ponds can emit more greenhouse gases, including methane, than dairy cows per kilogram of liveweight.
- The same food product's environmental impacts can vary by as much as 50 times, depending on a farm's land use practices, location and other factors.
- Even the highest-emitting plant protein producers still emit far fewer planet-warming greenhouse gases than dairy cow producers do.
The bottom line: "Cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car, while important, cannot achieve such large reductions on such a wide range of environmental issues," Poore told Axios.
Go deeper: Read the full story in the Axios stream.