Food and climate change

Our food system is a very significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. The figures are startling:

  • The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has calculated that, globally, agriculture generates 30% of total man-made emissions of greenhouse gases, including half of methane emissions and more than half of the emissions of nitrous oxide.
  • In the EU, over 30% of the greenhouse gases from consumer purchases come from the food and drink sector.
  • Latest conservative estimates from the Food Climate Research Network in the UK suggest that almost one-fifth of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions are associated with our food and drink (download 260Kb ppt).

The emissions come not just from the transport of food, but from every stage of the chain – the conversion of land to agricultural use, the energy used to make fertilisers, pesticides and farm machinery, the impact of agriculture on the soil (a natural carbon store), food processing, transport, refrigeration, retail, domestic use of food and waste from all the different stages. These are complex problems with no single solution. A growing body of evidence, however, indicates that emissions from the food sector can be significantly reduced if we were all to shift towards eating:

  • Less meat and dairy, and more food from plants
    Products from farmed animals – meat and dairy products such as milk and cheese – are among the most energy-intensive and greenhouse-gas intensive food products of all. According to latest figures from the United Nations, animal farming globally causes more greenhouse gas emissions than transport, and the impact is increasing. This is partly due to methane gas from the digestive systems of ruminants (cows and sheep burping), but also due to large areas of forest being cleared to grow grain and beans for livestock (including cows, pigs and chickens) to eat.
  • Local and seasonal food
    Locally grown and prepared food can cut down on fuel use in ‘food miles’ and makes it easier to identify and support environmentally benign food production methods. Buying local produce also means that the food is less likely to be associated with the greenhouse gas caused by recent land conversion. Seasonal food need not be imported, does not require energy-intensive conditions such as heated greenhouses, can be produced organically, and reduces the likelihood of energy-intensive methods of storage and transport such as refrigeration and air-freighting.
  • Food, such as organic, grown without artificial chemical
    Organic production methods are usually less energy-intensive than industrial agriculture. They do not use artificial fertiliser, which takes an enormous amount of energy and water to produce and results in emissions of the powerful greenhouse gas nitrous oxide.

Sustain is keen to ensure that sustainability issues as a whole are integrated into food policy, to ensure that the new public and policy attention on carbon does not result in inadvertent damage to the environment, or health, by other means, or in adoption of unethical practices. We have therefore produced integrated sustainable food guidelines and training programmes to help food businesses and caterers achieve sustainable food.

  • Sustain's sustainable food guidelines can be viewed at:
  • A one-page Model Catering Policy, for communicating sustainable food guidelines simply to caterers can be downloaded here. It can also be used to commission sustainable food for meetings.
     download 50Kb pdf

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The Food Miles report: The dangers of long distance food transport (1994). This groundbreaking report has now been republished with a new foreword.

More information

Climate change

Sustain has taken a keen interest in the rapidly accumulating evidence about the effect of food and farming on climate change, as scientific evidence emerges that our food system is a very significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Our food and climate change pages record our activities on this critical issue.

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Sustain advocates food and agriculture policies and practices that enhance the health and welfare of people and animals, improve the working and living environment, promote equity and enrich society and culture.

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