Multiple actions needed to reduce food emissions

Sharp reductions in food waste and increases in biogas production are two pieces in the puzzle to reduce emissions from food. /JBloom CC-BY

Reducing consumption of meat, dairy and eggs by three quarters in the EU will lead to reductions of 44 per cent in greenhouse gas emissions from the food sector, but other efforts are also needed to reach a 2-degree target.

In a recently published study, scientists from IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute have examined six different interventions in the EU food sector using a life cycle assessment approach. Once again extensive changes in diets proved to be the most effective method to reduce environmental impact from food consumption.

The researchers examined two dietary interventions. One where animal proteins (except fish) were reduced by 76 per cent and one where beef consumption was reduced to a quarter and pork by half, while the lost proteins were replaced by protein from poultry.

Reducing all land-based animal proteins showed to be a far more effective way to minimise environmental impact, compared to a shift from beef and pork to chicken meat. In the first scenario per capita greenhouse gas emissions went down by 44 per cent, compared to a mere 13 per cent in the latter. A similar pattern was found for land use, where an overall reduction in animal-based food led to a 33 per cent reduction in land use, compared to a 7 per cent reduction for the poultry diet. The per capita water consumption would also increase by 3 per cent with a shift to chicken, while a low animal protein diet means a decrease of 23 per cent.

The other four interventions in the study deal with food waste. The best results are shown when sharp reductions in waste from retailers and households (-85 per cent) are also assumed to reflect corresponding reductions in food consumption, leading to a 9 per cent reduction in per capita greenhouse gas emissions from the food sector. Changes in waste management showed similar results. If the share of food waste used for biogas production is increased from 10 per cent to 45 per cent and the share of food waste incinerated with energy recovery is increased from 24 per cent to 45 per cent, per capita greenhouse gas emissions from food would decrease by almost 8 per cent.

Annual greenhouse gas emissions below 2 tonnes per capita in 2050 are needed to limit global warming to 2 degrees. A low-meat diet is the only intervention in the study that will lead to per capita greenhouse gas emissions within that budget, that is 1.5 tonnes from food. In that case food would account for 75 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions. Assuming we would need some of that emission space for other sectors, one may conclude that all types of interventions to reduce emissions from food are desirable.

Kajsa Pira

Environmental Implications of Dynamic Policies on Food Consumption and Waste Handling in the European Union published in Sustainability 8/2016.


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