AGCI Insight

Feeding a sustainable future: The road to net-zero emissions food systems

March 8, 2024
Forest with section clearcut and planted for palm oil production, Thailand
Drone view of deforestation for palm oil plantations, Thailand. Photo: whitcomberd/Adobe Stock

Globally, the production, harvest, distribution, and consumption of food accounts for a quarter to a third of climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). This means that even if societies were to successfully eliminate all GHGs produced by energy systems, it’s impossible to achieve climate goals without equally ambitious attention to food system emissions. 

The roadmap for reaching net-zero emissions from our food systems, however, and the speed required to get there, are not well understood. This is due, in part, to the uniquely challenging, diffuse nature of the food system, with around 600 million people involved in food production alone, many working at small-scale family farms. 

In August 2023, AGCI hosted an interdisciplinary workshop that brought together experts in land use change, systems modeling, crop science, economics, behavioral science, and agribusiness, as well as emerging areas of innovation, such as synthetic protein manufacturing, to assess the prospects for achieving net-zero emissions from food systems. Organized by co-chairs Steve Davis (UC Irvine), Roz Naylor (Stanford), Jen Burney (UC San Diego), and Julianne DeAngelo (Watershed/recent UC Irvine PhD graduate), the workshop’s goal was to identify a roadmap for further research and mitigation efforts in key regions, including the U.S., Europe, China, Brazil, India, and Indonesia, and key crops, including ocean-based, or “blue,” foods. 

What is included in food system emissions?

The workshop opened with an overview of what’s included in food system emissions. 

As this chart presented by the workshop co-chairs shows, food system emissions comprise everything from the energy emissions from production and transport of food to the impact of converting land from forests to agriculture to the significant non-CO2 greenhouse gas emissions related to agricultural practices, such as synthetic fertilization of soils (N20), rice cultivation (CH4, N20), and the digestive processes of cattle, sheep, and goats (CH4). One implication of this chart is that while some aspects of food system emissions can be tackled using strategies already deployed in the energy sector (e.g., efficiency improvements, electrification, renewables), most food system emissions stem from the non-energy dimensions of the food and how it is produced.

Broadening the conversation to address equity issues

While decarbonizing the energy system requires a massive transformation of the global economy, the potential challenges and tradeoffs of reducing food system emissions may be even more profound. The workshop organizers acknowledged this from the outset. In her opening day talk, workshop co-chair Jen Burney highlighted how issues of food security and the livelihoods of food producers must be part of the discussion:

Throughout the week, workshop presentations and discussions explored the various strategies and tradeoffs required to decarbonize global food systems. 

Net-Zero Emissions Food Systems workshop co-organizers and participants

Building on workshop themes, Dr. Mario Herrerro, professor in the Cornell CALS Department of Global Development and director of Food Systems & Global Change, presented a public lecture, Thinking Big about Reducing Agricultural Emissions: Recognizing Creativity, Promise, and Hype, which concluded with a 20-minute summary of the landscape for food system transformation. His outline of solutions includes:

A roadmap emerges

A synthesis product from the workshop is starting to take shape, but one early takeaway from discussions is the need to consider pathways for food system emission reductions alongside progress in energy system reductions. Developing a realistic understanding of the reduction potential in both sectors, in tandem, can help prioritize what, where, and how to reduce agricultural emissions in order to optimize for climate, sustainability, and equity goals.

The outcomes from this workshop are timely, as international climate policies have started to pay closer attention to the role of food systems. At the latest COP28 in Dubai, 159 countries signed onto a Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems and Climate Action. While the necessary steps remain daunting, with the need to consider the risks and tradeoffs to food system changes paramount, the workshop revealed many opportunities and levers to significantly reduce food system emissions and bring us closer to the ultimate net-zero emissions goal.

Explore more videos, presentations, and participant profiles from this workshop here. And to be notified about products from this and future AGCI workshops, please sign up for AGCI’s email newsletter.