Scientists agree: to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement and avoid climate catastrophe, we need to make drastic changes to the way we produce food.
The global food system alone is responsible for a third of all global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Meanwhile, a third of all food is lost or wasted around the world and nearly one in three people did not have access to adequate food in 2020—a grim twist on the proverbial ‘all good things come in threes’ and a stark signal that our food system is long overdue for an overhaul.
As countries prepare to update their climate pledges formed to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement—Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs)—at COP26, scientists, advocacy groups and United Nations agencies are urging for greater inclusion of food systems transformation in national plans. Although current NDCs already include some agricultural emission reduction targets, these are often embedded within broader land-use targets such as reducing deforestation rates. These, crucially, ignore the significant mitigation potential of circular food interventions such as reducing food losses and waste or shifting towards more sustainable diets, which we detail later in this piece.
But to inform action, set targets and design effective policies —ones that not only address the root causes of the climate issue but that also find synergies with food security and broader sustainability ambitions—we first need to understand how food contributes to GHG emissions.
While no two food systems look exactly the same, we can roughly trace the journey that food makes along industrial agricultural value chains to examine how its carbon footprint expands along the way.
Food’s role in emissions generation begins long before it is first planted or bred. When land is unavailable for agricultural activities, forests, wetlands and other natural habitats are often cleared and converted into land for pastures or for the growing of crops like soy, corn and palm oil. These are often grown using nutrient-depleting monocropping techniques, largely to be used as animal feed—fueling our growing appetite for animal products—or for the making of processed foods. This conversion process produces a lot of carbon, removes valuable carbon sinks—trees—from our global reserve and threatens local biodiversity in the process. Between 2010 and 2020, nearly 5 million hectares worth of forests—a little over the size of the Netherlands—were lost to agricultural purposes every year, the net equivalent of nearly 36 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions.
For industrial farms to operate, synthetic fertilisers and farm equipment also need to be manufactured and transported to the farm gate. The resource extraction, manufacturing and transportation of these finished products all contribute to expanding our emissions footprint, long before we have even set foot on the farm.
Once we make it to the farm, our footprint continues to expand as synthetic fertilisers are applied to the land—releasing nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas nearly 300 times more powerful than CO2, both as they are applied and later, as nitrate evaporates into the air or leaches into groundwaters. Our footprint expansion continues as operations such as tilling and mechanical weeding or harvesting demand more and more carbon-based energy—about 13% of farmgate emissions.
When rearing livestock, enteric fermentation—the process through which animals, especially ruminants, digest food—releases more methane into the atmosphere and the manure animals generate, whether it is left on pastures, applied to soil or otherwise managed, is responsible for another set of methane and nitrous oxide gases. Globally, over half of all farmgate emissions directly relate to livestock, with many more indirect emissions attributable to livestock through the land conversion process described earlier, for example.
Once food leaves the farm and makes its merry way to our homes, it invites more energy-related emissions onboard as it is packaged, processed, refrigerated, transported and cooked. Today, although local governments and waste management companies around the world are making progress with offering separate organic waste collection systems, food waste is not systematically separated from other residual wastes. The anaerobic decomposition of organic material in landfills and dumpsites contributes additional methane to our footprint—not to mention the energy required to collect and dispose of this waste in the first place. Together with the manufacture of fertilisers and farm machinery, these pre- and post-production activities account for over a third of our food’s carbon footprint.
By the time it has completed its journey, our food has not only driven a significant amount of GHG emissions, it has also depleted the soil of its nutrients, polluted the air and water it relies on to grow and caused significant biodiversity loss across the globe—sometimes unnecessarily, as is the case when we forget about it at the back of our fridge.
There is no way around it: we need to change the way we grow, choose and value food. Circular solutions—applied across the food and agriculture value chains—can help us achieve exactly this. And their impact has the potential to be massive: our Circularity Gap Report 2021 found that circular food interventions can slash the industry's emissions by more than four billion tonnes globally.
In a circular economy*, food is produced regeneratively and, where possible, locally; biomass is optimally used—from agricultural by-products to manure, rainwater or used water; food losses and waste and packaging waste are designed out entirely; healthy, planetary diets are promoted and easier to access; and environmental and economic benefits are balanced with benefits to people and animals.
Our recent study, Climate Change Mitigation Through the Circular Economy, commissioned by the Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel, which advises the United Nations' Global Environment Facility, explores just how specific circular strategies in the realm of food and agriculture could cut emissions in the lead-up to 2050.
Methods that target the animals we raise for food—such as boosting productivity and managing manure better—could slash emissions by as much as 100 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalents (CO2e) over the next 30 years. Meanwhile, switching to regenerative means of growing food can help improve soil’s carbon sequestration and water retention capacity, provide natural ways to control weeds, pests and diseases and therefore reduce the need for fossil fuel-based synthetic fertilisers and mechanical operations. These include practices that boost soil health and protect biodiversity such as cover crops or low tillage and agroforestry—the practice of mixing crops with trees and shrubs. As a result, up to 217 billion tonnes of CO2e could be avoided over the next three decades by switching away from industrial agriculture practices. For scale: this is more than four times the total emissions we currently produce on a yearly basis.
Preventing food losses through improved harvesting methods, implementing strategies that allow for the safe storage, transportation and processing of food products and cutting food waste—for example, through prevention and surplus redistribution—can also slash emissions by up to 135 billion tonnes CO2e, simply by reducing overall demand for food that is never consumed. Finally, shifting to healthy, planetary diets could deliver emissions reductions of up to 240 billion tonnes of CO2e—largely by reducing the demand for animal protein and slashing livestock-related emissions before, during and after production.
Ultimately, circular food interventions allow us to do more with less: to reduce pressure on land, water and other scarce resources we are currently wasting—and to optimise the resources we do need to use. It is precisely this effectiveness that allows their emissions reduction potential to soar.
The circular economy can deliver the climate solutions the planet needs—and in the build-up to COP26 this Autumn, the world is watching whether national governments will update their pledges to the extent needed to limit dangerous warming.
This time, all eyes are on high-income nations, as 100 lower-income countries have joined together, crying 'no more excuses' and calling for stronger cuts in emissions and greater financial support for adaptation and loss and damages. While countries vary wildly—both in their contributions to climate breakdown and their capacities to combat it—all share a common responsibility and a number of benefits from adopting a circular roadmap as part of their mitigation plans.
For many countries, shifting to more circular agricultural practices will also help meet many of the Sustainable Development Goals—from good health and well-being to responsible consumption and production—and tackle food insecurity, providing populations with nutritious and affordable sustenance.
But while countries may share certain needs and ambitions, the means to achieve them are not identical. Our Circularity Gap Report 2020 categorised nations into three profiles based on their Human Development Index (HDI) rankings and environmental impact: Build (like India and Ethiopia), Grow (like Brazil and China) and Shift (like the Netherlands and United States) (see more in the visual below). In the spirit of 'common but differentiated responsibilities', all countries have a role to play—but these roles will look quite different.
Shift countries are the wealthiest on our planet: they enjoy high Human Development Index (HDI) scores but consume far more resources than the planet can sustain. And this translates to their food systems: while they benefit from technological efficiency in farming and typically don't suffer from drought- or disease-induced food losses, their intensive farming practices are detrimental to both soil and animal health. Here, food waste comes to the fore: in North America and Oceania, for example, consumers are responsible for as much as 61% of total food losses and waste—compared to just 5% wasted in low-income countries. Richer nations also drive demand for animal products, which in turn largely drives deforestation in Grow and Build countries. While the landmark EAT-Lancet report recommends a maximum of 14 grams of red meat per day for optimal human and planetary health—the equivalent of about half a meatball—the average American ate ten times this amount in 2020. To cut emissions, Shift countries should look to changing their diets—favouring plant-based forms of protein as well as seasonal and minimally processed foods—and reform intensive agriculture.
Grow countries are industrialising rapidly and building infrastructure to lift their populations out of poverty and accommodate a growing middle class. They are global manufacturing hubs and the world’s biggest agricultural producers. Crucially, they are also home to the world’s largest forests and should prioritise halting deforestation through concerted political action to ensure legal loopholes aren't thwarted and trees are protected. These nations can also slash their fertiliser use—a precedent successfully set by China: the country used to use four times the global average of synthetic nitrogen fertilisers, until partaking in a mass agricultural study comprising 21 million farmers. Fertiliser use was cut by 15% per crop—a reduction of 1.2 million tonnes of nitrogen—and farmers enjoyed increased yields and US$1.2 billion in savings. Food waste figures in Shift countries are also a good predictor of what Grow countries can expect as their middle classes continue to expand and so food waste prevention should not be neglected in planning for the future, as the UN’s latest Food Waste Index report advises.
While Shift countries' consumers waste more than half of their food, Build countries suffer losses earlier in the value chain: in Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, as much as 83% of food losses and waste happen during production, handling, transportation and processing. Improved technology—such as cold storage—could play a role here in enabling circular strategies that cut losses. Regenerative crop production and agroforestry—practices that ensure soil health and allow biodiversity to flourish—should also play a key role in Build countries' agricultural activity. This is already increasingly the case: over a third of lower-income countries have included agroforestry in their climate change mitigation plans. Yet at present, very few countries have the ability to systematically track changes and quantify carbon savings. Once again, increasing technical capacity comes to the fore.
This autumn is a pivotal time for climate action, with COP26 in November. As the global conversation focuses on reducing emissions—as we have in this piece—we must not forget that a food system must first and foremost serve the needs of the people it feeds. That food waste and food insecurity co-exist at the scale they do today is not only inefficient—it’s unethical. That food surplus is considered a solution to food poverty is misguided—and that technical solutions such as clean cookstoves are designed and marketed without their end-user in mind is a case study in the risks of siloed thinking. In other words: climate action needs to go hand in hand with social action.
The UN Food Systems Summit, which took place last week, rallied hundreds of thousands of people around the world and saw over 200 commendable commitments to ensure access to safe and nutritious food for all, to shift to sustainable consumption patterns, to advance equitable livelihoods and more. Still, the Summit serves as a cautionary tale: criticised for a narrow focus on high-tech solutions and turning a blind eye to human rights, agroecology and food sovereignty, it resulted in a wide-spread boycott from farmers, civil society movements and scientists alike—and critics’ voices remained strong after the event’s closure. It's clear that beyond resource efficiency, our broken food systems need a different kind of fix: one that embraces circular strategies, respects and draws on Indigenous knowledge, acknowledges the different roles countries have to play and puts social issues at the fore.
Circle Economy works with governments to investigate how circular strategies can provide material and emissions savings, impact the labour market and deliver other benefits to society and the planet across a range of sectors—including food and agriculture, a growing area of interest for policymakers around the world. If you want to know how the circular economy can benefit your country or city or how to transition to a more circular food system, you can get in touch with us through our website.
For resources and case studies on the circular economy, please visit our Knowledge Hub.
* This definition builds on those of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Wageningen University, the Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy (PACE), as well as Circle Economy’s own work in analysing the climate mitigation potential of circular food interventions.