Why should you read this chapter?

It is an internationally agreed objective to cut human-caused greenhouse gas emissions to zero this century, to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Given the major contribution of food system activities to total human-caused emissions, reducing these emissions is of great importance. But how and by how much can emissions be reduced, while also feeding a growing population?

There are different perspectives on how food systems emissions can be reduced and it is helpful to explore these since these differences also underpin many other debates around food system sustainability. Understanding these perspectives helps to put specific proposals for reducing food system emissions into a wider food systems context.  

This chapter, therefore, provides an overview of the following:

  • What greenhouse gas reductions are needed across all sectors (i.e. not just food), in order to meet globally agreed climate change targets?
  • What are current trends in food production and consumption and what impact might these have on future food-related greenhouse gas emissions?
  • What are the three major perspectives on how food systems emissions should be reduced, and what combination of these approaches might be required?
  • How does the need to reduce agricultural emissions relate to wider discussions on what food systems are preferable?

Key points

  • Limiting climate change to below 2-degrees C is projected to require 40-70% reductions in GHG emissions by 2050; 70-95% for the more aspirational 1.5-degree limit.
  • Food-related GHG emissions (up to 30% of all human-caused GHG emissions) currently account for all allowable emissions in 2050. Significant reductions in food-related GHG emission will, therefore, be necessary.
  • This challenge is made harder by growing global aggregate and per capita demand for food in general, and for animal products (typically the most GHG intensive foods) in particular.
  • Different stakeholders in the food system tend to prioritise different perspectives on how GHG emissions from food systems should best be mitigated (although many accept that a combination of approaches may be needed). Generally speaking, and to simplify somewhat, these perspectives fall into 3 archetypes:
    • ​Production-side: produce more food for less impact and increase efficiency throughout the food supply chain. This perspective tends to prioritise efficiency improvements via new technologies (e.g. plant breeding) and a faith in globalisation, to spatially optimise food production, and so minimise environmental impacts.
    • ​Consumption-side: reducing consumption of GHG-intensive foods, while meeting health and other sustainability goals. This perspective tends to prioritise socio-economic and political interventions to change the consumption practices of organisations and individuals .
    • ​System transformation: reduce emissions and environmental impacts as natural outcome of rebalancing inequalities in power, wealth, and access to food. This perspective tends to prioritise reforming institutions and governance (e.g. trade), and promotes localised and more agro-ecological food systems.
  • However, each of these perspectives as outlined above, has important limitations. These are discussed in detail within the chapter.
  • To most observers it is clear that some combination of all three approaches will be required: we need to produce differently, consume differently and seek to restructure food systems through changing the balance of power and wealth. Reducing waste at all stages in the food chain will also be important.


Suggested citation

Garnett, T., & Finch, J. (2016). How can we reduce food-related greenhous gas emissions (Foodsource: chapters). Food Climate Research Network, University of Oxford.

Written by

Tara Garnett, Food Climate Research Network, University of Oxford

Contributing authors

Jess Finch, Food Climate Research Network, Warwick University; 

Edited by

Samuel Lee-Gammage, Food Climate Research Network, University of Oxford;

Marie Persson, Food Climate Research Network, University of Oxford;

Reviewed by

Professor Mike Hamm, Michigan State University;  

Dr Elin Röös, Swedish Agricultural University;  

Dr Peter Scarborough, University of Oxford;

Dr Tim Hess, Cranfield University;  

Professor Tim Key, University of Oxford;

Professor Tim Benton, University of Leeds;  

Professor David Little, University of Stirling;  

Professor Peter Smith, University of Aberdeen;

Mara Galeano Carraro.

Reviewing does not constitute an endorsement. Final editorial decisions, including any remaining inaccuracies and errors, are the sole responsibility of the Food Climate Research Network.

Funded by

The production of this chapter was enabled by funding from the following sources:

The Daniel and Nina Carasso Foundation;

The Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food;

The Wellcome Trust;

The Esmée Fairbairn Foundation;

Jam Today;

Waste Resources Action Programme (WRAP);

The Sustainable Consumption Institute at Manchester University.