Food production accounts for 15% fossil fuel use, as big oil locks in dependence on petroleum-based pesticides

The fossil fuel usage in fertiliser production is expected to increase significantly through 2050

By Shagun
Published: Thursday 02 November 2023
Photo: iStock

Food production currently accounts for an estimated 15 per cent of global fossil fuel usage annually, equivalent to 4.6 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide. These findings, released on November 2, 2023 suggested that food production drives emissions on par with the combined emissions of all European Union countries and Russia.

The data reveals that as the use of fossil fuels for transport and power diminishes due to the increasing adoption of renewable energy, the fossil fuel industry is reinforcing the reliance of food systems on high-carbon energy by making significant investments in petrochemicals to manufacture plastics, pesticides and fertilisers.

Fossil fuels play a pivotal role in the four stages of the industrial food production value chain: Input production, land use and agricultural production, processing and packaging, and retail, consumption, and waste, as indicated in a report published by the Global Alliance for the Future of Food and Dalberg Advisers, an impact advisory group.

Advocating for a complete overhaul of food systems to sever the connection between food production and consumption, and fossil fuels, the report underscored that under a business-as-usual scenario, global food demand is expected to increase by 35-56 per cent by 2050, with a corresponding rise in fossil fuel usage.

Energy is required for food production and packaging, machinery and equipment operation, transportation systems, as well as storage and cooking. Among these stages, processing and packaging constitute the highest energy consumption at approximately 42 per cent globally, followed by retail, consumption, and waste at 38 per cent.

"Food processing, refrigeration, warehousing, storage, and transportation consume a lot of energy because they rely on energy-intensive equipment, refrigeration systems, and transport to ensure the efficient handling and preservation of food from farm to table," the report noted.

This is a cause for concern, especially as the distance food travels has increased by a quarter over the past two decades, pushing up emissions. "Energy intensity of this stage is increasing as supply chains get longer, requiring increased use of packaging and stricter processing requirements," the authors of the report added.

This is the first time that researchers have estimated global fossil fuel usage across the entire food supply chain, from farm to plate.

The 'retail, consumption and waste' stage is driven by food transportation, is driven by food transportation, embedded plastics, cooking and food waste, particularly in high-income countries, where retail is energy intensive due to higher consumption of processed foods and associated refrigeration requirements.

Input and agricultural production stages together account for 20 per cent of energy consumption in food systems, with land use and agricultural production constituting around 15 per cent, and input production, including the most fossil fuel-dependent activity of fertiliser production, accounting for approximately 5 per cent. The fossil fuel usage in fertiliser production is expected to increase significantly through 2050.

The researchers also showed how a small number of large multinational firms dominate the agri-food and energy sectors, with a vested interest in maintaining the existing fossil fuel and chemical-dependent industrial food system.

“Recognising and addressing the concentration of corporate power and taking measures to improve participation and agency of smallholder farmers and small-scale fishers, small and medium enterprises, local communities, and other actors will be key to real food systems transformation,” they added.

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.