Food system production and consumption can be done in a climate-friendly manner

Using a life-cycle assessment tool can reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions in our food systems.

Recent extreme weather events – drought, early spring thaws, and hurricanes – have intensified concern about climate variability and change. Our food system is both affected by these extreme weather events and may contribute to them.

Therefore, assessing the various points of impact your food has along the supply chain or food system is warranted. A suggested first step would be to learn about each component of the food system to understand how you can make a difference in that system. The food system components to consider include food production, processing, distribution, consumption and waste management.

For more information on the elements that make up a food system, read the article, What is a food system?

Understanding the impact of food production and distribution can be done through a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). The USDA Economic Research Services defines an LCA as a method used to analyze the consumption and environmental burdens associated with a product from cradle to grave.

Emissions from production and transportation, along with chemical inputs such as fertilizers, pesticides and electricity all need to be considered. Packaging, processing, preparing and eventually any waste emissions are also added to the impact mix. For example, purchasing, preparing, consuming, and disposing of waste from beef, is estimated to emit a total of 27kg of carbon dioxide emissions per kg of food consumed, while doing the same for fresh broccoli emits only 2.0 kg of carbon dioxide. (see Michigan State University Extension bulletin E3178, A Consumer’s Guide to Local Food Systems and Greenhouse Gasses).

A 2009 report done by Edwards, J et al at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy also quantified estimated food system contributions to climate change. The following percentages indicate the food system greenhouse gas footprint at the different food system stages:

  • Food Production
          Livestock production 50-70%
          Fruit, Vegetable and Grain production 50%
  • Food Processing 10%
  • Food Transportation 5-15%
  • Food Consumption and Disposal
         Shopping <5%
         Cooking <5-30%
         Refrigeration 10%
         Landfill decomposition 5%

To meet the demands of the world’s growing population, our food system needs to be adaptive and resilient while also being mindful of energy usage and emissions. Our food system practices from both the production and consumption side can be done in a climate-friendly manner.

The Institute for Ag and Trade Policy provides climate-friendly practices that food producers could use to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. For a comprehensive review of the suggested practices, please read the report. The list below is a summary of the suggested practices:

  • Make waste useful by using the outputs of one process as inputs to another
  • Heat greenhouses with renewable sources
  • Compost animal waste with plant matter to create a nutrient rich fertilizer
  • Consider using a methane digester to provide power
  • Minimize packaging and use material that is reusable, recyclable or degradable
  • Make use of waste heat and energy
  • Compost food waste
  • Create regional food distribution systems to minimize transportation distances and time in transport

As a consumer, ask the food producer or retailer what efforts are being done to address environmental sustainability. Examples of the practices consumers can perform include the following:

  • Seek out fresh whole foods that haven’t been highly processed or require excessive packaging.
  • Buy the food that you need and will use to reduce waste and spoilage.
  • Consider composting your non-consumed food waste instead of sending it to a landfill.
  • Purchase produce that is in season
  • Grow your own garden produce

Together, producers and consumers can work to meet the demands being placed on the food system to feed the growing population while at the same time being mindful of the climate.

Michigan State University Extension offers leadership programs for new and experienced youth and adult leaders who would like to develop or improve their leadership skills. To learn more about this and other programs or to contact an expert in your area, visit MSU Extension’s Expert Search, or call 888-MSUE4MI (888-678-3464).

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