Just Five Common Foods Produce More Greenhouse Gas Emissions Than Nearly All Countries

CREDIT: AP PHOTO/J.D. POOLEY, FILE
CREDIT: AP PHOTO/J.D. POOLEY, FILE

Think about the last time you ate something that included wheat, soy, corn, rice, or palm oil.

As some of the most common commodity crops in the world, it’s likely that your last meal contained at least one of these ingredients, even if you weren’t aware of it. Palm oil can hide in things like sandwich bread or pizza dough, while soy can find its way into everything from cereal to canned soups.

That means that, knowingly or not, your last meal probably helped contribute to the greenhouse gas pollution that is driving global climate change. According to a new report from Oxfam America, the production of these five commodity crops emits more greenhouse gases annually than each of the world’s countries, save for the United States and China.

A lot of those emissions occur on the farm, released from eroded soil or overgenerous amounts of fertilizer. Specific crops also contribute to climate change in unique ways: rice production is especially dangerous to climate because it generates methane, while crops like palm oil and soy contribute to global warming through deforestation. But emissions from food also extend well beyond the field, from the trucks it takes to ship the goods from warehouses to stores, to the methane that is released when those products end up in landfills.

That’s a problem, the report argues, especially if the world really wants to stick to the goal of limiting the world to well below 2 degrees Celsius of warming agreed on in Paris last December. In order to fully achieve the vision set in Paris, Aditi Sen, Oxfam America’s senior policy adviser for climate change, says that food companies need to play a major role, which involves stepping up their commitment to climate action.

“It’s impossible to reach [the Paris] goal unless food and agriculture [emissions] reductions are made,” Sen told ThinkProgress. “The food sector absolutely needs to be part of the solution.”

Ironically, the food sector is also one of the sectors most vulnerable to climate change — making action on climate imperative not just for the planet, but for the bottom line of some of the world’s largest companies.

Climate change could be catastrophic for food production

Food, and food production, has a particularly unique relationship with climate change. Agriculture is a major contributor to the problem, accounting for 13 percent of global emissions in 2011 — making it the second-largest industry contributing to climate change, behind the energy sector. But agriculture is also extremely vulnerable to the kind of climatic shocks that runaway climate change could spur, from shifting precipitation patterns to rising sea levels. A growing body of studies suggests that climate change could be really bad news for agriculture — it could make crops poisonous, make crops less nutritious, and make crops more difficult to grow, among other consequences.

Unless [food companies] invest in the resilience of their supply chain, food systems are going to face climate shocks.

Already, food companies are dealing with the challenges of producing food in a changed climate. In 2010, heavy rains and flooding in Guatemala affected banana production, which led to some $9 million in losses for Fresh Del Monte Produce. That same year, a severe drought in Russia and subsequent ban on wheat exports sent shockwaves throughout the global market, causing General Mills’ share prices to drop 2.2 percent. And, in recent years, Libby’s Pumpkin — a Nestle-owned company and supplier of the majority of the world’s canned pumpkin — has seen declines in their U.S. pumpkin harvest due to an increase in precipitation throughout the pumpkin-producing state of Illinois.

Challenges like these mean that food companies have a vested interest in cutting emissions and attempting to stave off the kind of climate shocks that could disrupt the food supply chain. A handful of companies have already acknowledged this, and are taking steps to both revamp their own practices and push for policies that encourage action on climate change. In October, just months before the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Paris, chief executives from Mars, General Mills, Unilever, Kellogg, Nestle, New Belgium Brewing, Ben & Jerry’s, Clif Bar, Stonyfield Farm, and Dannon published a letter in the Washington Post and Financial Times urging both domestic and world leaders to enact policies that tackle climate change.

“The challenge presented by climate change will require all of us — government, civil society and business — to do more with less. For companies like ours, that means producing more food on less land using fewer natural resources. If we don’t take action now, we risk not only today’s livelihoods, but those of future generations,” the letter read. “We are asking you to embrace the opportunity presented to you in Paris, and to come back with a sound agreement, properly financed, that can affect real change.”

Agriculture Wasn’t Included In The Paris Climate Deal, But It Will Be Crucial To Meeting Its GoalsClimate by CREDIT: Shutterstock In December, nearly 200 nations met in Paris and unanimously agreed, in historic…thinkprogress.orgThe executives, in a sense, got their wish. The Paris climate conference produced what some have called a “historic” agreement that seeks to hold the world well below 2 degrees Celsius of warming by shifting global investments away from fossil fuels and towards a renewable economy. But the agreement is also light on details for the food and agriculture sector. While food security is mentioned once in the preamble to the agreement, neither food nor agriculture are mentioned within the body text at all.

Taking action to preserve their supply

But just because agriculture isn’t mentioned in the text of the Paris agreement doesn’t mean that it won’t be crucial to meeting the agreement’s goals. Without deep emission cuts from agriculture, studies have shown that the world will have an incredibly difficult time staying below 2 degrees Celsius, even if other sectors like energy or transportation make deep cuts.

“When we talk about the post-Paris climate agenda, where business plays a key role, we need to look at a variety of businesses, not just energy,” Oxfam’s Sen said. “Food has a huge emissions imprint, but it’s also the sector that is likely to be most impacted by climate change, from disruptions to the supply chain to farmers.”

The food sector absolutely needs to be part of the solution

One of the most important thing that food companies can do to help propel climate action, according to Sen, is to adopt science-based targets for emission reductions throughout their entire supply chain — not just the operations that take place within a food company’s four walls.

“Typically, most companies are not setting targets that are science-based, and most of them are not setting targets that cover their supply chain,” Sen said. “They are only setting targets that cover their own operations.”

A few companies have already implemented science-based emission reduction targets that cover their entire supply chain, but not many. General Mills was the first company to announce that it would cut emissions throughout its entire supply chain, from the fields where they source their materials to the landfills where their waste ends up. Other companies followed, with Kellogg announcing in December that it would seek to reduce emissions across its entire agricultural and manufacturing supply chains 65 percent by 2050.

Ultimately, Sen sees whole-supply chain strategies as a necessary business move for companies hoping to protect their bottom-line from the consequences of climate change.

“We want companies to be investing in the resilience of their supply chain,” she said. “It’s good for the people and planet, but there’s also a business case. Unless they invest in the resilience of their supply chain, food systems are going to face climate shocks.”