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New FAO analysis reveals carbon footprint of agri-food supply chain

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The food supply chain is on course to overtake farming and land use as the largest contributor to greenhouse gases from the agri-food sector.

Food processing, packaging, transport, household consumption and waste disposal are pushing the food supply chain to the top of the greenhouse gas emitters list, according to a  new study led by the UN agriculture agency, presented on Monday at the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow.

In its analysis, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) maintains that the food supply chain in many countries is on course to overtake farming and land use as the largest contributor to greenhouse gases (GHGs) from the agri-food system.

Moreover, unrelated farm activities and land-use changes currently account for more than half of the carbon dioxide (CO2) produced from agri-food systems in some regions while in developing countries over the past three decades, it has more than doubled.

Important trend

“The most important trend…since 1990, highlighted by our analysis, is the increasingly important role of food-related emissions generated outside of agricultural land, in pre and post-production processes along food supply chains, at all scales”, meaning global, regional and national levels, said FAO Chief Economist, Maximo Torero.

“This has important repercussions for food-relevant national mitigation strategies, considering that until recently these have focused mainly on reductions of non-CO2 within the farm gate, and on CO2 from land use change”.

Spurring ‘meaningful awareness’

Using a broader data set, the new analysis allows farmers and government planners to understand the connections between their proposed actions under the Paris Agreement on climate change, and for consumers to better realize the growing carbon footprint caused across global supply chains.

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Details, which will be updated annually, on all parts of agri-food systems throughout countries and territories between 1990 and 2019, can be easily accessed through the  FAOSTAT portal.

“FAO is glad to offer this global public good, a data set that directly and in detail, addresses the greatest challenge of our time and which is now available for all”, said Mr. Torero. “This kind of knowledge can spur meaningful awareness and action”.

The new data finds that 31 per cent of human-caused GHG emissions, originate from the world’s agri-food systems.

Meanwhile, an analytical brief emphasizes how supply-chain factors are driving an increase in overall agri-food system GHG emissions and the progressively more important role of food-related discharges away from farmland.

The information has important repercussions for national strategies to bring emissions down.

Tracking the numbers

Of the 16.5 billion tonnes of GHG emissions from global total agri-food systems in 2019, 7.2 billion tonnes came from within the farm gate, 3.5 from land use change, and 5.8 billion from supply-chain processes, according to the new analysis.

In 2019, deforestation was the largest source of GHG emissions, followed by livestock manure, household consumption, food waste disposal, fossil fuels used on farms and the food retail sector.

The UN Statistics Division, International Energy Agency (IEA) and researchers from Columbia University and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Studies collaborated with FAO in the analysis.

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