Maybe you’ve heard the statistic that global food systems are responsible for a tremendous portion of global Greenhouse Gas emissions (GHGs) — a staggering 34% according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. Perhaps even more surprising is that nearly three-quarters of those emissions are a result of on-farm practices before fossil fuel-thirsty transportation and distribution even come into the picture.
Sourcing regeneratively-grown ingredients on a large scale can make an incredible difference when it comes to reducing GHGs and combating climate change.
GHGs are naturally occurring gases — namely carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide — that trap heat in the atmosphere. Although these gases have existed on Earth for billions of years, only in the last few centuries have their concentration in the atmosphere begun to cause the planet’s temperature to rapidly rise and remain high. This dangerous temperature increase is a result of human activities like the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, and carbon-intensive agricultural practices.
Why is agriculture for food production such an enormous emitter of greenhouse gases?
Agriculture contributes to GHGe in several substantial ways, though it is greatly dependent on crop, species, and farming practices. For example, industrial ruminant-based meat production usually has a very high GHG impact due to the combination of methane naturally released by grazing animals in addition to the likelihood that habitats were cleared to make room for pasture.
Nearly equal to enteric fermentation emissions, (the digestive process that produces methane), are emissions related to feed production. Livestock feed contributes 41% of animal agriculture’s total emissions as a result of nitrogen dense fertilizers, transportation, processing, and the destruction of ecosystems to make way for agricultural production.
By contrast, a crop — especially perennials grown alongside livestock — produced employing low/no-till methods, cover crops, crop rotation, synthetic fertilizer minimization, and other location-appropriate methods will not only reduce GHGs, it can actually sequester carbon in the soil.
How can we tackle GHG emissions from the global food system?
A growing number of Food CPGs are making carbon-neutral, net-zero, and even climate-positive commitments, and carbon sequestration is critical to reaching these goals — particularly climate-positive ones that go beyond harm reduction and strive for environmental regeneration.
Soil management far and away has the largest effect on GHGs from agricultural production and is essential to preventing the global temperature from rising to catastrophic levels. This has become especially apparent after a 2018 FAO report showed the top 30cm of soil on our planet holds nearly twice as much carbon as the Earth’s entire atmosphere.
Soil management practices are relatively easy to implement in the short term. As for the longer term, the most holistic way to reduce GHGs is to transform away from annual agriculture and towards an integrated approach, (plant and animal production working in tandem), with tree-based systems. Tree crops have the greatest potential for capturing carbon, especially when integrated with animals.
Meeting net-zero and climate positive targets starts at the ingredient level
Recently, countries and global organizations are (finally) making meaningful commitments to reducing GHGs. New legislation from the European Union has made carbon neutrality by 2050 legally binding for 27 signing member countries. The law acknowledges the impact of the food system on the continent’s ability to meet net-zero targets and particularly the role that carbon sinks play in addressing the existential threat of climate change.
Fortunately, there are some actions short of passing international climate legislation or restructuring your company’s financial modeling that can greatly reduce agriculture’s carbon footprint. Being intentional about our ingredient choices is the first step toward a more sustainable and resilient food system. Some ingredients are more likely to be carbon-intensive than others, but even more important than the ingredient itself is how and where it’s produced.
For an animal-based ingredient like beef, selecting standards such as Land to Market can reduce GHGs due to its minimal use of fossil fuels, tillage, and synthetic fertilizers. Cattle raised conventionally in the United States can emit up to 35 kilograms of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) per kilogram of beef produced, whereas according to some research Land to Market-verified meat can have a negative CO2e per kilogram when accounting for carbon removals. While findings in the literature are mixed, we look forward to developments in the accounting of carbon removals across crops to see variance in impacts across practices and geographies.
If the ingredient is not an animal product, the best way to significantly decrease GHGs is often to select a different ingredient or to identify a specialized supplier with improved practices and site-specific data. Rice paddies, for example, emit a large amount of methane whether or not they’re grown organically — as much as 5kg CO2e per kg of rice produced. When appropriate, one might consider an alternative — like fonio — that is less carbon-intensive and has the added benefit of increasing biodiversity.
Minimal carbon footprints are now a marketing must-have
Global food brands like General Mills that have made clear Net-Zero commitments are well on their way to meeting the EU’s new regulations — not to mention anticipating the demand of consumers who are increasingly seeking out and paying a premium for thoughtfully sourced products. Consumers are becoming more skillful at sniffing out greenwashing and are demanding explicit science-based target initiatives (SBTi) to reduce GHGs that are the direct result of a company’s supply system.
Unilever, Danone, and Nestle have also committed to net-zero or carbon neutrality by 2050, and many more are sure to follow suit. In order for these kinds of commitments to have a meaningful and lasting impact on GHGs, they have to be more than a slogan or high-level goal setting. There need to be clear and actionable steps for sourcing ingredients that consider the environmental and social impacts of our global food system.
As we account for the true cost of production of each ingredient that we buy, designing products sustainably and regeneratively has benefits for planetary health as well as profit. According to a 2019 Nielson study, 73% of global consumers say they would change their buying habits if it would make a positive environmental impact. Opting for ingredients with smaller carbon footprints not only positions your product to stand out to customers, it helps build a resilient food system that benefits everyone from the soil up.
A regenerative ‘ripple effect’
It’s worth noting that by taking action to reduce GHGs, other aspects of sustainability and regeneration are also positively affected. By switching to grass-fed, organic, or Land to Market, GHG emissions can be greatly reduced and many other sustainability metrics such as biodiversity, water usage, and labor risk may be simultaneously improved. Addressing the carbon output of a given ingredient has beneficial ripple effects throughout the food system and our environmental health. That is not to say that our work stops at GHGs, rather it highlights that every choice we make in our global food system has consequences, and those consequences don’t have to be negative.