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Food choices key to tackling global warming: Study

Food consumption in the five highest greenhouse gas (GHG) emitting countries, including India, was responsible for more than 40 per cent of global food supply chain emission in 2019, according to a study.

The research, published in the journal Nature Food, found that action to protect the planet against the impact of climate change will fall short unless emissions are reduced from the global food system, which now makes up a third of man-made GHG emissions.

The largest emission within food supply chains is triggered by beef and dairy consumption in rapidly developing countries, such as China and India, while emissions per head in developed countries with a high percentage of animal-based food declined, the researchers said. The team noted that the growth of the global population and rising demand for emission-intensive food are likely to boost emissions further.

‘Shift in diets’

“A global shift in diets, including reducing excessive intake of red meat and improving shares of plant-based protein — will not only reduce emissions but avoid health risks such as obesity and cardiovascular disease,” said study corresponding author, Klaus Hubacek from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. Yuli Shan, from the University of Birmingham, noted that the agrifood system drives global land use and agricultural activities — contributing to around one-third of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas. “Population growth, expansion of food production and an increase in animal-based diets are likely to further increase emissions and squeeze the global carbon budget,” said Shan, corresponding author of the study.

“However, widespread and lasting diet shifts are very difficult to achieve quickly, so incentives that encourage consumers to reduce red meat or buy products with higher environmental dividends could help to reduce food emissions,” Li said.

Emissions data

Researchers analysed data linking emissions to consumers between 2000 and 2019, revealing that in 2019, food consumption in the five highest emitting countries, China, India, Indonesia, Brazil and the US, was responsible for more than 40 per cent of global food supply chain emission.

Annual global GHG emissions associated with food increased by 14 per cent over the 20-year period. The substantial increase in consuming animal-based products contributed to some 95 per cent of the global emissions rise, accounting for almost half of total food emissions, the researchers said.

Beef and dairy contributed 32 per cent and 46 per cent of the increase in global animal-based emissions, they said.

Consumption of grains and oil crops is responsible for 43 and 23 per cent of global plant-based emissions respectively, while rice contributes to over half of the global grain-related emissions, with Indonesia, China, and India being the top three contributors, the researchers added.

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