COP26 failed to tackle the biggest GHG emitter: the food system

By Afton Halloran, Head of Nominations, Food Planet Prize 2021-11-14 2 minutes read

The global food system accounts for one-third of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. The figure published in Nature Food in March 2021 is higher than previous estimates. Despite this impressive share, the official program of this year's UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) dedicated zero days to food, unlike other big polluters like the energy and transport sectors.

Although three of the summit's key milestones – methane reduction, sustainable land use, and climate finance – touch upon areas of the food system, COP26 failed to address the biggest GHG emitter systemically.

Data: Food system's Greenhouse gas emissions
Food system's greenhouse gas emissions

According to the updated numbers from a new global database called EDGAR-FOOD published in Nature Food, livestock and crop farming are responsible for the largest share of food system-related emissions. Land use comes in second with almost one-third of emissions, mainly due to carbon losses from deforestation and degradation of organic soils. While cows and deforestation make catchy headlines, they are only part of the story, albeit the biggest. Packaging, transportation, processing, retail, consumption, and waste management make up approximately 27% of food-system emissions.

Scattered coverage of the food system at COP26

The UN Climate Conference tackles the food system's contribution to global warming – through livestock exclusively – with the Global Methane Pledge signed by over 100 countries.

137 nations have also set out new commitments to change their agricultural policies to become more sustainable and less polluting, as well as to invest in the science needed for sustainable agriculture and for protecting food supplies against climate change. Farming and land use have even been a part of the formal agenda at the COP26 in Glasgow.

Furthermore, the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero announced that financial institutions have pledged over $130 trillion to fund the transition to a sustainable economy. Among the highlighted sectors, one finds farming and cattle. Again! Loans and investments will "help farmers implement proven business models to decouple beef and soy production models from deforestation."

In light of these commitments, many civil society organizations emphasize that a food system approach – not just an agriculture-centric approach – is required if we are serious about climate action. Others regret that governments and companies are not doing enough to shift unsustainable consumption patterns. And we agree!

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