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Green revolution required to tackle Greenhouse Gas emissions from food production

A new green agricultural revolution is needed if we are to overcome the challenges faced with producing enough food to feed a growing population while at the same time limiting the impacts this will have on greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). This is the main conclusion of a newly released Scientific Statement published by the Royal Irish Academy (RIA) and developed in collaboration with its Climate Change Sciences Committee.

The statement highlights the challenges the world will face in producing enough food to feed 9 billion people by 2050, while at the same minimising the impact of food production on the environment. From production through to final consumption, food-system GHG emissions account for an estimated 19 to 29% of the total global GHG emissions.

Reducing the GHG emissions from food production globally, and in Ireland, will not be easy. Food demand is tied to population and income growth, which will both continue to increase in the coming decades. In addition, agricultural GHG emissions are generated through processes that are more complex than in sectors such as transport, manufacturing or construction.

Teagasc economist Trevor Donnellan, author of the statement, pointed out that the emissions generated in the Irish beef and dairy sector, which produces Ireland’s two biggest food exports, are among the lowest in Europe per unit of output. While agriculture represents over 30 percent of Ireland’s GHG emissions, this is because food production in Ireland is high relative to our population, with most of our main agricultural products being exported.

Methane from cattle, slurry or the use of nitrogen fertilisers contribute to GHG emissions in the food production process. However, not all of this food is consumed. Food waste - food that is thrown away by consumers, usually in the developed world, and food losses – food that spoils before it gets to the consumer, usually in the developing world, are issues to be addressed.

Some have advocated low intensity agriculture as the way forward, but while this might go some way towards reducing the GHG emissions associated with agriculture, it would also limit global food production capacity, leading to greater food shortages and rising food prices internationally.

Therefore a long term solution requires that we use science to develop technologies that increase the amount of food produced from existing resources. Over the shorter term, there should also be a focus on reducing the fraction of food that spoils before it is consumed through the development of better infrastructure and the promotion of waste prevention.