Climate impact of food miles up to 7 times higher than previously thought: study

Newly published research in the journal Nature Food “suggests transport accounts for one-fifth of total food-system emissions with fruits and vegetables among the most carbon-intensive.” The researchers reported that, “When the entire upstream food supply chain is considered, global food-miles correspond to about 3.0 GtCO2e (3.5–7.5 times higher than previously estimated), indicating that transport accounts for about 19% of total food-system emissions (stemming from transport, production and land-use change). Global freight transport associated with vegetable and fruit consumption contributes 36% of food-miles emissions—almost twice the amount of greenhouse gases released during their production.” (Southey, 2022).

“Food-miles emissions are driven by the affluent world,” the study says. It finds that while “high income nations” represent only about 12.5% of the world’s population, they are responsible for 52% of international food miles and 46% of the associated emissions.” “The authors also reflect on the pros and cons of buying local food – an often touted solution for reducing food emissions.

The study showed that ending all international food transport would cut food-miles emissions by just 9%, highlighting the relatively greater importance of other dietary choices in tackling the climate impact of the sector. Past studies suggest that transporting food has a small carbon footprint when compared to the rest of the food system. However, many do not account for emissions throughout the entire food supply chain. The new study aims to fill this gap and includes emissions for transporting fertilizers, machinery, and animal feed as well as the more obvious shipping and vehicle emissions from sending food products around the world.” (Tandon, 2022).

The authors concluded that in order, “[t]o mitigate the environmental impact of food, a shift towards plant-based foods must be coupled with more locally produced items, mainly in affluent countries.” (Li et al., 2022).

Look for locally-produced, seasonally-available foods at your farmers’ market. You can also start a home or community garden, and/or purchase a share through a community supported agriculture (CSA) farm. Finally, there are numerous food guides that help consumers locate locally-produced, seasonally-available foods. For example, see the comprehensive guide to purchasing sustainably-produced local foods from the Grace Communications Foundation (www.eatwellguide.org) or download a seasonal food guide, or free App, from the FoodPrint website (see below):

Seasonal Food Guide

Sources: Southey F. Climate impact of food-miles up to 7 times higher than previously thought: study. Food Navigator, June 29, 2022. Available at: https://www.foodnavigator.com/Article/2022/06/29/climate-impact-of-food-miles-up-to-7-times-higher-than-previously-thought-study

Tandon A. ‘Food miles’ have larger climate impact than thought, study suggests. Carbon Brief. June 20, 2022. Available at: carbonbrief.org

Citation: Li, M., Jia, N., Lenzen, M. et al. Global food-miles account for nearly 20% of total food-systems emissions. Nat Food 3, 445–453 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43016-022-00531-w

Published by greengrass50

My name is Christine McCullum-Gomez, PhD, RDN. I am a registered dietitian nutritionist with expertise in environmental nutrition, food and nutrition policy, food and nutrition security, food justice, chronic disease prevention, regenerative & organic agriculture, and sustainable healthy dietary patterns. Currently, I serve on the Editorial Review Board and as a Column Editor for the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition. I live in Bogota, Colombia with my husband, two teenagers (boy-girl twins), and our dog Honey. My website is: www.sustainablerdn.com. You can follow me on Instagram at: https://www.instagram.com/cmccullumgomez/

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