A new study suggests that transporting food from where it is produced to our dinner plates creates at least triple the amount of greenhouse gas emissions as previously estimated.
So-called “food miles” are likely responsible for about 6% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, the authors found after calculating that three bn tonnes of CO2 equivalent were produced in transporting food for human consumption each year.
Scientists who carried out the research, which analyzed 74 countries and regions and 37 different types of food, found richer countries accounted for 46% of the emissions from food miles but just 12.5% of the world’s population.
Fruit and vegetables had the highest food miles emissions because they often needed refrigeration, and consumers demanded out-of-season foods.
The University of Sydney’s Prof David Raubenheimer, a co-author of the study published in the journal Nature Food, said research on making food production more sustainable had focused on comparing plant-based diets to meat.
“We tend to interpret information around us in simplistic terms, like ‘meat is bad and vegetables are good,’ but we wanted a much more comprehensive picture,” he said.
“Our study shows that in addition to shifting towards a plant-based diet, eating locally is ideal, especially in affluent countries.”
Study leader Dr. Mengyu Li, also of the University of Sydney, said when food miles were added to emissions from land use, production, and methane from cattle, about 30% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions were linked to food production.
“Food transport emissions add up to nearly half of the direct emissions from road vehicles,” she said.
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While meat production emits 2.8bn tonnes of CO2-e, seven times as much as fruit and vegetables, the emissions from food miles for meat were only 110m tonnes globally.
This is compared to 1.06bn tonnes for fruit and vegetables, with cereals and flour being the second highest emitting food group.
The authors said the global total of 3bn tonnes of CO2-e related to food miles was between 3.5 and 7.5 times higher than previous estimates.
As well as calculating the emissions from moving the food to the consumer, the study also included the emissions from inputs used to produce the food. For example, the calculations would include emissions from grain grown and then transported to feed animals.
About 1.7bn tonnes of CO2-e emissions came from moving food within countries, with 1.3bn tonnes from international transportation.
Raubenheimer said the food supply was driven by demand, and if consumer attitudes changed, this could “reap environmental benefits on the grandest scale”.
“One example is the habit of consumers in affluent countries demanding unseasonal foods year-round, which need to be transported from elsewhere,” he said.
Total emissions from fruit and vegetables were high because of the higher distances traveled and humans eating a lot of them.
He said the next step was to use the study findings to build a more detailed picture of the impacts of different diets – on a societal and individual level – on food mile emissions.
But he said a good rule was that if all the food you bought were produced locally, less meat and more fruit and vegetables would be linked to fewer emissions.
But if a plant-based diet included lots of imported and out-of-season produce, this would increase emissions.
“Eating local seasonal alternatives, as we have throughout most of the history of our species, will help provide a healthy planet for future generations,” he said.
Options for richer countries to reduce emissions included cleaner energy sources for vehicles and providing incentives to use production and distribution methods that cut emissions.