This is the second story in a two-part series exploring greenhouse gas emissions and food.

Food could be a key in slowing climate change — if we change everything from how it’s grown, to what rots in our fridges.

The path of food from farm to fork and beyond is responsible for between 21 and 37 per cent of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, a new report says.

The report, published last week by the UN Environment Program and three environmental organizations, found that transforming how we grow, eat and dispose of food could significantly reduce these emissions, but most countries have overlooked two key tactics: reducing food waste and changing diets.

“Food systems sit in a really interesting place,” said Sophia Murphy, a food systems and international economy expert with the International Institute for Sustainable Development.

“There are many aspects of the food system that are exacerbating climate change — and it’s somewhere we can do something to reduce emissions.”

If humans continue producing, eating and wasting food as we currently do, global food systems emissions are projected to almost double by 2050 — single-handedly putting us above the 1.5 C “safe” limit to global warming.

How humans eat over the next thirty years will have a major impact on global emissions. Healthy, low-carbon diets, reduced food waste and sustainable agriculture could provide up to 20 per cent of the greenhouse gas emission reductions needed to stay within 1.5°C of warming. Graph by Falk et al. in Loken, B./EAT

Warming above this threshold will have devastating consequences — more intense fires, droughts, floods, hurricanes and pandemics — with severe ecological and social repercussions.

Agriculture is Canada’s sixth-largest emitter of GHGs, with 87 per cent of these emissions going to crop and animal production in 2019, according to Statistics Canada. Household emissions accounted for roughly 19 per cent of the country’s total emissions in 2015.

And the 35.5 million tonnes of food waste Canadians generate each year produce about 56.5 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent (the standard measure for greenhouse gases), according to a 2019 report by Second Harvest, an organization advocating for food waste reductions.

Eliminating carbon-intensive agriculture and land uses could reduce global emissions by 7.2 billion tons of CO2 equivalent a year — enough to charge 918 million smartphones, according to the U.S. EPA.

“There are many aspects of the #foodsystem that are exacerbating #climatechange — and it’s somewhere we can do something to reduce #emissions.” @foodresilience
Crop and animal production are the two largest emitters of greenhouse gases in Canada's food system — but they aren't alone. Food waste and diet changes could also significantly reduce emissions. Graph by Statistics Canada.

And reducing food waste and changing diets could reduce emissions by another 1.8 gigatons a year, the report notes. Combined, that’s enough to deliver 20 per cent of the global mitigation needed to keep global heating below 1.5 C, the number agreed upon in the 2015 Paris Agreement.

But most countries aren’t taking these steps, according to the plans they submitted to the UN under the 2015 pact.

“While many countries mention the agriculture sector in their (emissions reductions plans),” the UNEP report notes, “only 11 countries mention food loss in their (plans) and not one country makes reference to food waste.”

That includes Canada — at least for now.

The federal government has committed roughly $5.5 billion to emissions reductions programs in Canada’s agricultural sector, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada wrote in an email.

In contrast, only $184 million has been committed to reducing food waste. Most of that funding will support the Food Policy for Canada, a plan to reform Canada’s food system, launched last year.

It's a start, and one that could hold hope if it’s pursued further.

“There are many ways to produce food, and they all have different implications,” Murphy, the food systems expert, said

The question is, which ones will we choose?

Marc Fawcett-Atkinson / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada's National Observer

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How we analyze and examine information has become lined up with an engineered approach to governance, in top-down silos of management providing measureables (the appearance of doing something) towards stated strategic goals. This story and the approach it is based on is an excellent example. The climate catstrophe we are starting to experience cannot be mitigated by isolated "treatment of the symptoms" of a torn fabric naturally selected belonging locally. Long supply lines, and disposability, themselves symptoms of a system based on "I have my money and I have my car , so I don't need you" in relation to my local human and non-human ecosystem are the deeper disease. The human brain and thus sustainability are literally adapted to small, local personal belonging to a place ( literally a.k.a. indigeneity). Please consider doing a story on the "Transition Towns" movement which addresses this fundamental issue, that is the ghostly "elephant in the room".

According to the report referenced, countries like Canada should consider the following measures:
• Developing awareness-raising activities on the health and sustainability benefits of plant-rich diets
• Including recommendations for red meat consumption that address public health issues as well as stricter guidance for public procurement
• Mandating food labels and sustainable labelling frameworks to increase consumer awareness and transparency
• Promoting research on alternative proteins (e.g. algaes)
• Taxing animal proteins to disincentivize consumption
• Providing sustainable dietary training for all medical professionals to enable education of patients
• Promoting food education including school gardens
• Promoting food public procurement for schools that foster more sustainable and healthy diets with special emphasis on plant-rich diets