Debunking food miles myths

(Originally posted on 12 November 2012)

Up to a third of the greenhouse gas emissions come from production and consumption of food. As economies develop, they become more reliant on the import of food. However, the food miles concept that has caught on and persisted in several developed economies gives us only a partial view of the carbon footprint of food. The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) has just published a study called Climate Change and Food Systems that reaches these findings. It advocates a “food systems” approach, i.e. taking a holistic view of emissions from “farm to fork”.

The study also highlights the large contribution of deforestation for agriculture and how the role of agriculture is inadequately addressed in deforestation policies. The report recommends three steps to reducing agriculture’s emissons:

    1. Changing consumption patterns: reducing consumption of products with high GHG footprints, e.g. meat.
    2. Reducing waste in all steps of the food chain, from post-harvest losses (more common in poor countries where transport is inefficient and refrigeration is a luxury) to pre and post consumer losses (mostly in rich countries).
    3. Improving efficiency of production through sustainable agricultural intensification. This includes adopting methods where less nitrogen and methane is emitted per unit of food produced.

The study draws on an ITC study from 2010, that examines the effectiveness and efficiency of policies to mitigate GHG emissions in agro-food chain. Here is a figure from the study that illustrates how imported meat can have a lower carbon footprint than locally-produced. For both lamb and dairy, the GHG emissions from production are much lower when produced in New Zealand than the UK. The transport emissions (from ship) are low enough to ensure that the overall emissions remain lower than UK produced dairy and meat.

Comparative CO2 emissions per tonne of dairy and lamb produced in New Zealand and the United Kingdom

Comparative CO2 emissions per tonne of dairy and lamb produced in New Zealand and the United Kingdom
Source: Saunders Barber and Taylor (2006), quoted in Kasterine and Vanzetti (2010)

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