Julie Nash of Ceres says most food companies are tackling only a tiny fraction of their greenhouse gas emissions, despite the fact the sector produces more climate-causing gases than transport and buildings sectors combined

Be honest: when you’re thinking about lowering your carbon footprint at home, your mind jumps first to driving less and turning down the thermostat.But do you ever think about the food you’re eating? You should.

The agriculture sector produces nearly one-quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. That’s more than the transportation and building sectors combined, according to the latest climate change report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). And by 2050, agriculture-related emissions are expected to be 80% higher due to population growth and global diets shifting to more carbon-intensive foods – ie meat.

Efforts to date to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions in agricultural supply chains are only baby steps

To be sure, major food companies are aware of these greenhouse gas impacts and are starting to address them, beginning with their direct operations. A far smaller number are also pursuing mitigation measures in their agricultural supply chains, such as curbing excessive fertilizer use, improving management of livestock, and reducing forest conversion/deforestation impacts.

But efforts to date are only baby steps. Faster, broader, more ambitious changes across the entire agriculture sector are needed if we want to achieve the Paris climate agreement goal of limiting global temperature rise to well below 2 degrees Celsius, with an aim of achieving no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, as the new IPCC report recommends. 

Soybean harvesting in the Mato Grosso in Brazil. Credit: Alf Ribeiro/Shutterstock 

Here are a few of the biggest problem areas that require more attention:

  •  A recent Ceres survey found that 86% of food companies’ overall carbon footprint comes from purchased goods and services– the vast majority being their agriculture supply chains. Yet, only 15 of the top 50 companies that were surveyed assess and disclose these indirect emissions, known as Scope 3 emissions. Fewer still, only eight companies, set explicit targets to reduce these emissions. In effect, most food companies are disclosing and managing only a tiny fraction of their greenhouse gas emissions.

  •  And what they are missing is significant. Reported Scope 3 emissions from just the 15 companies that disclosed last year totalled 629.9 million tons of CO2 emissions, equivalent to the annual emissions from 156 coal-fired power plants or 70.9 billion gallons of gasoline.

  • Deforestation is a big reason why Scope 3 emissions are a significant problem for food companies. Recent data from the University of Maryland found that more tropical forest was lost in 2016 and 2017 than any year since 2001. An estimated 18.7 million acres of forest, equivalent in size to Panama, was lost each year, or about one acre every second, according to Global Forest Watch.

  • The biggest losses are happening in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, dubbed “the lungs of the Earth” since they hold some 14% of global terrestrial carbon. Their importance for climate stabilisation and biodiversity protection is profound.

The Amazon has been dubbed the lungs of the Earth. Credit Norad

Food companies, via their agriculture and meat supply chains, are one of the causes of deforestation. In the Amazon, deforestation is being driven mostly by cattle-ranching. Brazil has the world’s largest livestock herd, with 209 million head of cattle on 413 million acres. That’s two and a half times bigger than Texas.

 While many international food companies have made deforestation commitments in critical commodity supply chains, few have implemented robust traceability and supplier-assurance mechanisms in cattle supply chains. This means food companies are unable to ensure that their products are indeed deforestation-free.

UN experts believe that agriculture and forestry have higher mitigation potential than renewable energy

A growing number of investors understand that traceability and supplier assurance are essential building blocks for understanding and mitigating deforestation risk. That’s why more than 40 institutional investors representing $6trn in assets signed an expectations statement directed at key companies in Brazil’s cattle supply chains requesting that they strengthen traceability and supplier-assurance mechanisms.

As more attention is focused on the Amazon and other rainforests, it is important to realize that land-management initiatives have the biggest near-term potential at the lowest cost to help achieve climate stabilisation.

United Nations experts believe that agriculture and forestry have the highest mitigation potential by 2020, even more than highly visible renewable energy, transport and energy efficiency strategies. From a financial standpoint, investments to reduce tropical deforestation and support forest re-growth are cost-effective ways to protect essential agriculture supply chains while putting us on a path toward climate stabilisation.

We’re seeing encouraging gains in reducing emissions in the electricity and transportation sectors, but no such transformation is occurring in agriculture. This needs to change. We cannot lose precious ecosystems that are needed to feed more people on an ever-warming planet.

Julie Nash is director for food and capital markets at Ceres. Ceres is a sustainability non-profit organisation working with the most influential investors and companies to build leadership and drive solutions throughout the economy.


Ceres  IPCC  science-based targets  deforestation  beef  Amazon 

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