The Environmental Impact of the Food Industry

5 min read
September 18, 2023 at 11:31 AM

Did you know that nearly 1 billion tonnes of food is wasted each year? Or that food production accounts for 26% of total global greenhouse emissions? The food industry is constantly under scrutiny as the percentage of food waste, and increase of GHG emissions continues to have a significant and negative impact on the environment.

How does the food industry contribute to GHG emissions?

There are many components that contribute to the increase of GHG emissions in the food industry. The emissions are created throughout the entire process of the food cycle, which includes: agriculture, transportation, transformation, storage, and the management of food waste.

More specifically, agricultural production requires large amounts of fresh water which causes environmental pressure in particular regions experiencing water stress. 70% of global freshwater withdrawals are used for agriculture. Not only does this account for over a quarter (26%) of the greenhouse gas emissions globally, but it also has an impact based on its enormous land use. Half of the world’s habitable land is used for agriculture, that of which was once covered by forests. Not only has this reduced habitats, but also the levels of biodiversity.

Agricultural activities create GHG emissions within food-related processes. This includes: the methane expelled from cattle’s digestive processes, nitrous oxide derived from fertilizer, carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere from cutting down trees, and the burning of crop residues. Roughly 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions are derived from livestock farming, more specifically cows. 

Following the agricultural component is the refrigeration and transportation of food products. 14% of food is lost during transportation, and this loss can increase emissions based on the proximity of the delivery. After the food has been purchased, a large majority is wasted. In fact, roughly 2.12 billion tonnes of food is wasted annually. Food waste is responsible for 8-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions, primarily because it generates methane as it decays in landfills and nitrous oxide through solid waste combustion facilities.

How can companies in the food industry decrease GHG emissions and become more sustainable?

Due to the fact that the food industry is constantly producing large amounts of GHG emissions, it is important for organizations to make a difference by conducting a GHG assessment. This ultimately leads to making changes throughout their supply chain, and within their production processes. 

Here are 10 ways for companies to decrease their GHG emissions in the food industry:

  • Utilize technology to increase productivity, reliability, and efficiency. An increase in productivity relates to more production capacity. 
  • Transition to clean energy alternatives, such as; wind, solar, and hydro. 
  • Compost and recycle food waste helps by deferring food waste from landfills. Compost can then be used to improve nutrient soil on farms, or be repurposed as biofuels. 
  • Invest in high-quality equipment in order to lower energy consumption, decrease the amount of food waste created, and ultimately lower production costs.
  • Choose low-carbon packaging versus plastic packaging. Also, avoid over-packaging. 
  • Implement soil carbon sequestration on farms and ensure this becomes a regular practice. 
  • Opt for a plant-based product line versus meat-based. 
  • Source raw materials locally to avoid long transportation costs and emissions. 
  • Use fuel-efficient transportation, such as; electric vehicles or biofuels to reduce the climate impact. 
  • Encourage recycling materials for packaging and equipment in order to increase the longevity of each item.

Here are some tips on what companies can do to reduce their carbon emissions. 

How can ClimateSeed help companies in the food industry to reduce their carbon footprint? 

For companies in the agri-food industry, navigating the path towards sustainability presents a myriad of challenges and opportunities. As the global population continues to grow, the demand for food production increases, exacerbating the environmental impacts associated with it. From the extensive use of water and land in agriculture to the emissions generated by transportation and food waste, the industry plays a significant role in contributing to global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Addressing these challenges requires a concerted effort to adopt more sustainable practices, such as enhancing efficiency in production, reducing food waste, transitioning to renewable energy sources, and innovating in sustainable packaging and product lines.

In this challenge, ClimateSeed offers crucial support by providing services that enable companies to accurately measure and manage their carbon emissions. Through comprehensive GHG assessments, ClimateSeed helps identify key areas for emission reduction and guides companies in implementing effective strategies to achieve sustainability goals. For those in the industry looking to take concrete steps towards reducing their carbon footprint and enhancing their sustainability efforts, ClimateSeed stands ready to assist. 

How can consumers reduce emissions? 

Although there are many ways in which organizations can become more sustainable, there are also practices to follow in your daily routine. It's important for consumers to incorporate these changes into their daily routines to leverage their ideals and purchasing power in influencing an organization's sustainability plan.

A few examples are:

      1. Don’t over-purchase! Only buy the ingredients you need for the next few days in order to avoid food waste.
      2. Reorganize your fridge: This allows you to visibly see all food items to ensure there are no hidden surprises at the end of the month. 
      3. Compost: Throw leftover food waste, such as; banana peels, apple cores, and coffee grounds into the compost bin to avoid the landfill. 
      4. Buy locally: This decreases the GHG emissions caused by transportation and supports local communities. 
      5. Grow your own food! 
      6. Cut back on meat consumption and choose a plant-based diet. Although this is the case, avoid soy products and avocados. 
      7. Use leftovers creatively! If you are unsure of what to create with the leftovers in your refrigerator, download the app: “What’s in your fridge?” and ideas will be automatically generated. 
Food industry


The Revival of Consumer Consciousness

As solutions for a more sustainable food industry have been outlined, it is important to highlight that consumers also have a role to play. They should be active participants in driving change, just as much as large organizations.

According to a study conducted by Forbes, 72% of consumers are now more conscious of the amount of food they waste compared to three years ago. The main motivations behind this mindset are due to world hunger, climate change concerns, and lowering their own food costs. This demonstrates that consumers have the power to drive change. 

In conclusion, the food industry must reconsider its environmental impact and meet customers' demands by committing to more sustainable practices. Many solutions already exist, therefore it’s important to support organizations that have integrated sustainable practices, encourage others to follow suit, and alter our own shopping habits. This increase in consumer consciousness will positively impact the food industry, as long as we all change our habits to positively impact the environment!


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