Report: Food-system change ‘startlingly absent’ from countries’ climate change commitments

Food systems account for roughly a third of global greenhouse emissions worldwide, yet a new analysis finds that strategies to reform how food is grown, processed and consumed are “startlingly absent” from most countries’ plans to tackle climate change.

The assessment, from the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, looked at how 14 countries — including the U.S., China, Germany, the UK and Senegal — propose to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The analysis focused on the role food systems play in the plans, called Nationally Determined Contributions, that nations were required to update or create ahead of the most recent United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), held last fall in Glasgow. In addition to spelling out how countries will cut emissions, these plans also serve as a metric that can be used to measure progress toward addressing climate change.

Changing food systems could potentially cut global emissions by more than 10 gigatonnes per year, which would be about a fifth of the total emissions reductions needed by 2050 in order to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change, the Global Alliance for the Future of Food said.

Reforming subsidies that incentivize environmental destruction could play a key role — the UN considers 90 percent of agricultural subsidies to be “harmful” to the environment because they encourage practices like intensive livestock production, chemical-intensive agriculture and the production of ultra-processed food. But Germany was the only country in the assessment that detailed measures to address such subsidies.

And, while promoting healthy and sustainable diets could significantly reduce emissions while also benefiting biodiversity and health, no countries included specific strategies to promote dietary reform in their NDCs. Similarly, none of the countries detailed plans to reduce emissions from food imports of commodities like cocoa, beef, soy and palm oil, which are major drivers of deforestation.

France was the only country whose NDC included plans to reduce food loss and waste, the assessment found. About one-third of all food produced in the world is wasted. In the U.S., food waste that ends up in landfills is an major source of methane, a short-lived but potent greenhouse gas.

Colombia, Senegal and Kenya had the most ambitious measures to promote agroecology and regenerative practices, the report found.

The U.S.’s updated NDC pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50 to 52 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. The report noted some positive aspects of the U.S. plan, such as measures to protect and restore forest and marine ecosystems, encourage agroecology and regenerative approaches, and reduce the use of hydrofluorocarbons — greenhouse gasses that are widely used in refrigeration.

But the plan fell short in several ways: It does not include measures to reduce livestock emissions or to promote more sustainable diets, the analysis found. Consumption of animal products like meat and dairy account for 82 percent of all diet-related greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., the report found, but its authors noted that “diets are a polarizing issue in the U.S.” and that it is “politically unfavorable to be seen to be intervening with peoples’ food choices.”

The U.S. also missed the opportunity to address food waste by promoting local agriculture and shorter supply chains, according to the assessment. And, crucially, it fails to address continuity for the policies and commitments in its NDC, leaving them at risk of being overturned by future administrations.

“There’s no time to lose,” said Patty Fong, climate program director at the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, in a statement. “Governments need immediately to start looking at food systems transformation as a critical tool for driving down emissions and preventing catastrophic levels of warming.”