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Feeding our future population, estimated to be over nine billion by 2050, risks intensified competition for land, water, and energy. It also amplifies the risk of agriculture’s unwanted impacts - such as contribution to climate change and biodiversity loss. Without change, the global food system will not provide adequate capacity to produce safe, sustainable food for the future.
Currently, systems to produce, package, and distribute food generate a third of global greenhouse gas emissions, are responsible for 70 percent of worldwide freshwater usage, and cause up to 80 percent of biodiversity loss (united nations, climate action). Much can be achieved immediately with current technologies and knowledge, given sufficient will and investment. In this context governments, cities and businesses are choosing to take action toward climate issues in the form of net-zero programmes.
The current state of play
With more and more companies joining the race to net-zero - which means achieving zero or negative net emissions by 2050, targets are becoming more ambitious and on a timeline. Equally important are the split targets, that break the journey to net-zero into shorter-term milestones rather than a distant target that’s difficult to monitor progress against. This approach fits well with the mantra that sustainability is a journey, and the journey is just as important as the end goal.
Agriculture, a sector that both emits and sequesters C02, is in the unique position of having the significant potential to contribute to the reduction of emissions, as well as having a job to do to lower the industry’s emissions.
In the UK, the NFU has set the ambitious goal of reaching net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions across the whole of agriculture in England and Wales by 2040. Net-zero New Zealand, in 2019 handed its farmers and the rest of the country a 2050 target for CO2. Some Australian agricultural groups have goals to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to net-zero by 2030. While the United States Department of Agriculture has set the goal of increasing U.S. agricultural production by 40 percent, as well as cutting the environmental footprint of U.S. agriculture in half by 2050.
Companies who have recently aligned their business strategy and brand, to place net-zero at the forefront of their business include the following -
Unilever - net-zero by 2039, Nespresso - carbon neutrality by 2022, Nestle - net-zero by 2050, Cargill - reduce greenhouse gas emissions from their global supply chains (Scope 3) by 30% by 2030, Danone - aiming to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.
Tesco – net-zero by 2035, Marks & Spencer - by 2030, aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from M&S operations worldwide by 80%, Morrisons - net-zero agriculture by 2030, Coles supermarket - to deliver net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, Aldi - reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26% by 2025
Where do emissions happen along the food life cycle?
The majority of GHG emissions from farm-to-shelf, for most food and beverage products, occur in the agriculture stage of the supply chain. According to the most recent CDP Supply Chain report, agriculture accounts for more than 90 percent, on average, or 11x the emissions found in manufacturing and retail.
Agricultural production is a major contributor to atmospheric greenhouse gases on a global scale. A new global food emissions database (EDGAR-FOOD) found that in 2015, food-system emissions represent 34% of total GHG emissions. The largest contribution came from agriculture and land-use/land-use change activities, such as fertilisers and soil disturbance (71%), and deforestation. The remaining from supply chain activities: retail, transport, consumption, fuel production, waste management, industrial processes, and packaging. The sizeable challenge in achieving net-zero for food production means that we must address and mitigate emissions across the entire value chain.
A globalised food supply chain and consumer demand for out-of-season produce and high food quality expectations have increased emissions of fluorinated greenhouse gases from industrialised countries - which have a turbocharged effect on global warming - used in refrigeration and other industrial applications. Refrigeration is responsible for nearly half of the energy consumption by the retail and supermarket sector, whose emissions have grown more than fourfold in Europe since 1990. Worldwide ‘cold chain’ activities account for around 5 percent of global food-system emissions, a figure expected to increase.
The role of food waste reduction in sustainability
Globally, food worth $750 billion is lost or wasted each year throughout the entire supply chain. Avoidance of post-consumer and post-harvest waste has a direct and powerful impact on emissions. From an environmental perspective, this loss and waste is an extremely inefficient use of resources as so much has been embodied at this stage. According to a study by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), if food loss and waste were its own country it would be the world’s third-largest emitter, only exceeded by China and the United States. Large amounts of water and fertiliser also go into the production of this food that never reaches human mouths - this is a big environmental cost to pay for food from which humans derive little to no use.
Carbon removal in the net-zero journey
To keep global temperature rise to less than 1.5-2 degrees Celsius, which scientists say is necessary for preventing the worst impacts of climate change, we’ll need to not only reduce emissions wherever possible but also remove and store some carbon from the atmosphere. Carbon removal can take numerous forms, from new technologies to land management and farming practices. However, each carbon removal approach faces challenges and limitations, examples include -
- Forests - trees can be especially good at storing carbon removed from the atmosphere by photosynthesis – for example through reversing forest degradation or well-planned mixed-species plantations
- Farms - soils naturally store carbon, however, agricultural soils have been running a big deficit due to intensive use. Regenerative farming practices would catalyse carbon removals. Policies and incentivisation would need to be in place to ensure the sequestration is not reversed by reverting back to soil disruptive activities
- Bio-energy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) - is another way to use photosynthesis to combat climate change. Whilst potentially promising in principle BECCS has not been proven at scale
Despite these challenges, there are clear opportunities for removals of carbon within agricultural systems across food and farming. We are seeing an emergence and strengthening of investments and incentives to encourage progress in these areas.
Best practice and nature-based approaches
No single approach can meet all of the complex challenges in the net-zero journey – decisive action is needed across multiple areas. This is perhaps unsurprising, given the diversity and scale of the challenges, and the need for the global food system to deliver much more than just food, and food security in the future. The attention of policymakers will therefore shift to the question of prioritisation – where to focus efforts, and how best to deploy scarce resources.
Considerations for action
- Mitigate GHG emissions wherever possible for each stage and actor in the food supply chain
- Seek out ways for agriculture to be part of the solution, and not the problem, by maximising its potential to remove carbon from the atmosphere
- Reduce waste – both in high and low-income countries
- Make sustainable food production central to development
- Spread best practices and invest in new knowledge
- Improve the evidence base upon which decisions are made and develop metrics to assess progress
Agriculture nature-based solutions are considered by many to be an effective, long-term, cost-efficient approach to tackling more sustainable land and water resources management. These practices (reduced soil disturbance, cover crops, switching to organic treatments) can help with climate change impact, improve water availability and quality as well as restore ecosystems and soils worldwide while offering substantial health co-benefits and achieving global food security.
How we can support and enable the farmers and food businesses
Farmers, ranchers, and food producers are important stewards of our ecosystem and on the frontlines of climate change, they play an important role in developing and implementing environmental and agriculture solutions.
We are enabling farmers and food businesses to progress on their supplier sustainability journey. Connecting the value chain to measure sustainability baselines and identify sustainability improvement opportunities.
Ready to transform your sustainability programme?
References - The future of Food and Farming - final report (publishing.service.gov.uk); Net-zero: farming and the countryside | Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit (eciu.net); Net Zero_12pp_v4.indd (nfuonline.com); Life cycle analysis of greenhouse gas emissions from organic and conventional food production systems, with and without bio-energy options - ScienceDirect; FAO - News Article: Food systems account for more than one third of global greenhouse gas emissions ; What’s Food Loss and Waste Got to Do with Sustainable Development? A Lot, Actually. | World Resources Institute (wri.org); Agriculture Nature-Based Solutions | Land & Water | Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations | Land & Water | Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (fao.org)