With growing demand for diverse food products1, Transportation has become a key link in global food supply chains. This study estimates the carbon footprint of food miles using a global multi-regional accounting framework.
“Food miles” are based on the distance food travels from production to consumption to show environmental impact (ie energy use or emissions). Food miles are measured in tonne-kilometers (tkm), the transport of 1 tonne of food 1km – the distance traveled multiplied by the mass of the food transported.
Assessment of the carbon footprint of food miles is limited as only a few selected foods have not been subjected to this type of analysis – due to the large amount of data required to model all food types. The carbon footprint of global food trade, which takes into account the entire food supply chain, is lacking, but without this data it is not possible to assess the relative importance of food miles. This study provides a comprehensive estimate of the carbon footprint of food kilometers using a global framework – incorporating countries of origin, countries of destination, transport distances and food masses.
Researchers calculated the “food-mile” emissions using a global multi-region model that accounts for transport distance, food mass, mode of transport with the relevant emission factor (rate at which each vehicle releases CO2 in the air). They also calculated total food system emissions, which include emissions from food-kilometres, food production and emissions due to land-use change.
When the entire food supply chain was included in this analysis, the researchers found that global food miles consumed approximately 3.0 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2e) – higher than previously assumed. This indicates that transport is responsible for 19% of total food system emissions. The transportation of fruits and vegetables contributes 36% to food-mile emissions — about double the amount of greenhouse gases (GHG) released during their production. Food miles accounted for only 18% of total freight miles, but the researchers found that emissions from these accounted for 27% of total freight emissions, mostly from international trade (18%).
The researchers also estimated global emissions from the food system at 15.8 GtCO2e, equivalent to 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions. With global food spending of around US$5 trillion in 2017 and the global population growing every year, it makes sense to consider the impact of food miles on climate change. The researchers say this should be coupled with more locally produced food, adding that improved food security through better food systems management also requires the integration of environmental protection goals.
- These included grains and oils for human and animal consumption.
Li M, Jia N, Lenzen M, Malik A, Wei L, Jin Y, and Raubenheimer D (2022). system emissions. health food3(6): 445-453.
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“Science for Environment Policy”: News Alert Service of the European Commission’s Environment DG, published by the Science Communication Unit, The University of the West of England, Bristol.
The content and views contained in Science for Environment Policy are based on independent peer-reviewed research and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Commission. Please note that this article is only a summary of a study. Other studies may come to different conclusions.
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