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5 Food Commodities Produce More GHGs than Any Country Apart from China, U.S.

Share of annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions among the seven commodities with the highest emissions in each region (in metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent). Click here to view full image. | Image credit: Oxfam, with data from CE Delft

New research commissioned by Oxfam shows that rice, soy beans, corn, wheat and palm oil together lead to more greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than any country’s individual footprint, with the exception of emissions giants China and the United States. The organization asserts that without making drastic emissions cuts to these five food commodities’ supply chains, the Paris Agreement’s goals to reach ‘net-zero’ by 2050 and limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius will not be met.

“The Paris Agreement was a big step forward, but we can't meet its goals without further urgent action,” said Oxfam International’s food and climate policy lead, Tim Gore. “Business and industry leaders gathering in London this week [for the Business and Climate Summit] must show that Paris is a springboard for deeper emissions cuts and do more to help farmers on the front lines of climate change. The food and beverage sector should be leading the way.”

Today, Oxfam released a report prepared by research consultancy CE Delft, Feeding Climate Change, as well as an online interactive data tool that illustrates the scale of greenhouse gases produced by various food commodities around the world. They also examine the global production and water scarcity footprint of each commodity.

Rice, soybean and maize all have higher GHG footprints in absolute terms than palm oil. While crops like rice, maize and wheat are staples that underpin the food security of millions of people, the report notes that options exist to reduce their emissions while supporting the livelihoods of small-scale producers.

The food industry as a whole is responsible for about 25 percent of the world’s GHG emissions, making it “one of the biggest drivers of climate change,” according to the organization. The report identifies emissions from farm soils as a major contributor. For example, nitrous oxide from the use of fertilizers is one of the “super-pollutants” produced by farm soils. Oxfam suggests that soil emissions are as damaging to the environment as those produced by deforestation to create new farmland.

At the same time, the millions of small-scale farmers that the industry (and society) relies on are very vulnerable to extreme weather patterns. Oxfam notes that climate disasters often put farmers and their families in danger of falling into poverty and hunger, and that the risks for women are even higher given their unequal access to land, credit and other financial resources. The online tool includes first-hand accounts from small-scale farmers showing how climate change affects them.

“Food companies not only need to outline science-based emissions cuts in their supply chain and work with small-scale farmers to implement them, but also help these farmers thrive in the face of the changing climate by guaranteeing them a living income,” Gore added. “Doing so would be good for people and good for business. If food companies fail to act, it’ll be impossible to keep the promises of the Paris Agreement.”

The report suggests that food and beverage companies assess their responsibilities toward enhancing the adaptive capacity, strengthening resilience and reducing vulnerability of small-scale farmers and others working in or affected by their supply chains. It recommends setting mitigation targets for their full operations and supply chain, as well as targeted adaptation interventions tailored to the needs of small-scale farmers and workers, especially women, throughout their global supply chains.

Several food and beverage giants such as Ben & Jerry’s, Clif Bar, General Mills, Kellogg Company, Mars Incorporated, PepsiCo, Nestlé USA, Stoneyfield and Unilever have already begun to demonstrate a sense of urgency around climate change action. In recent months, executives from these companies pledged to do their part, urged U.S. and world leaders to back the Paris Agreement, and spoken at a congressional briefing on how climate change is disrupting global food supplies and their own supply chains. Unilever and Nestlé have also consistently led the pack in Oxfam's Behind the Brands scorecard campaign, with high scores for climate change policies.


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