Nearly 20% of Food-Related Emissions Come From Transport, New Study Finds

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Food has a transportation problem. According to new research, 19 percent of food-related emissions come from transport, a number seven times higher than previous estimates.

Research published in the journal Nature Food says the world’s most affluent regions have the biggest food transport footprint. The food industry accounts for more than 15 percent of total global emissions. By comparison, the aviation sector is just about two percent.

The findings

“Our study estimates global food systems, due to transport, production, and land use change, contribute about 30 percent of total human-produced greenhouse gas emissions. So, food transport – at around six percent – is a sizeable proportion of overall emissions,” Dr. Mengyu Li from the University of Sydney School of Physics and the study’s lead author, said in a statement.

“Food transport emissions add up to nearly half of direct emissions from road vehicles.”

According to study co-author, nutritional ecologist Professor David Raubenheimer, most of the research on food sustainability has been focused on agriculture, particularly livestock.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash.

“Our study shows that in addition to shifting towards a plant-based diet, eating locally is ideal, especially in affluent countries”.

The researchers looked at 74 countries across 37 economic sectors including produce, livestock, manufacturing, and energy to calculate transport distances and food masses. The research found China, the U.S., Russia, and India to be the top food transport emitters. Also high on the list are Germany, France, and Japan, which, along with the U.S., produce 46 percent of transport emissions while accounting for just 12.5 percent of the global population.

Temperature-controlled fruits and vegetables accounted for more than a third of emissions, the researchers said. Produce is also one of the easier items to source locally unlike grains, seeds, beans, and animal products that may not be as accessible.

‘Locavore’ diets

The researchers are urging for a return to the ‘locavore‘ diet popular 15 years ago when it was the Oxford Word of the Year. The urging comes as the IPCC’s most recent report called for immediate reductions in emissions to avoid exceeding the 1.5°C target over pre-industrial levels set by the Paris Accord.

According to the researchers, eating locally on a global scale is the emissions reduction equivalent of driving one ton to the Sun and back 6,000 times.

farmers market
Photo by Megan Bucknall on Unsplash

“Changing consumers’ attitudes and behaviour towards sustainable diets can reap environmental benefits on the grandest scale,” added Professor Raubenheimer.

“One example is the habit of consumers in affluent countries demanding unseasonal foods year-round, which need to be transported from elsewhere.

“Eating local seasonal alternatives, as we have throughout most of the history of our species, will help provide a healthy planet for future generations.”


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