New research warns of food system impact on climate

According to new research published in Science, without fundamental changes to the way food is grown and produced, irreversible climate change may be unavoidable.

Alex Smolokoff, Editorial coordinator

November 19, 2020

2 Min Read
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While the last year has been gripped by the global COVID-19 pandemic, another global crisis continues to weigh on researchers—the global climate crisis. And, according to new research published in Science, without fundamental changes to the way food is grown and produced, irreversible climate change may be unavoidable.

The study, authored by Michael A. Clark et al. and published this month in Science, warns that without intervention, the emissions caused by the global food system could preclude the Paris Agreement’s stated goal of limiting the increase in global temperature to 1.5° or 2°C above preindustrial levels.

The study separates the global food system from other sources of greenhouse emissions, and its findings are dire. According to the authors, “We show that even if fossil fuel emissions were immediately halted, current trends in global food systems would prevent the achievement of the 1.5°C target and, by the end of the century, threaten the achievement of the 2°C target.” The authors do not mince words when giving warnings about the interventions necessary to reverse this trend, stating, “Meeting the 1.5°C target requires rapid and ambitious changes to food systems as well as to all nonfood sectors.”

Emissions from the global food system are, according to Clark, “a function of what we eat, how it’s produced, and the size of the population.”

Clark pointed to several specific sources within the global food system as problem areas, including the production of beef and other red meat. He also pointed to fertilizer use and production as another problem area. Clark provided several examples of how such a reduction could be achieved. Among those suggestions, he mentioned a reduction in meat, dairy and eggs and an increase in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and nuts. He also noted such a shift in diet on an individual level also comes with its share of health benefits, a win-win situation he described as having “enormous co-benefits.”

Other factors, such as food waste, also play into global emissions. According to Clark, “if the emissions associated with food loss were a country, it would be the third largest emitter in the world.” Making the food system more efficient and limiting that food loss—or re-allocating such potential losses to areas in need—would help eliminate unnecessary emissions. That overall process, says Clark, comes to do three simple truths.:

“One, food matters to climate and if we continue eating the way we are, it will result in catastrophic climate change,” Clark said. “Two, there is a lot we can do; third, everyone has a role to play—consumers, businesses, food processors, everyone.”

About the Author(s)

Alex Smolokoff

Editorial coordinator, Informa

After a career in sportswriting, Alex Smolokoff was on the editorial team at Informa Markets from December 2018 through spring of 2022, working on Food & Beverage Insider. In his free time, he enjoys watching his hometown Boston sports teams.   

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