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Carbon footprint of importing food could be 7.5x higher than thought

A new study in Nature Food has found that food’s transport emissions, once thought to be a negligibly small proportion of food systems emissions, are much higher than previously estimated and that the carbon footprint estimates of imported fruits and vegetables will be particularly impacted. 

If you work in the controlled environment agriculture (CEA) sector, this is a very important piece of research to be aware of. However, we know that everyone is feeling a little bit stretched right now, with the impacts of the energy crisis already being felt across the industry and harvest season for seasonal greenhouse growers in full swing. So to save you from getting bogged down in the details, LettUs Grow had its Food Systems Researcher, India Langley, summarise the study and its CEA implications.

Research findings
The report estimates that emissions from global food miles are about 3 Gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent. This is 3.5 to 7.5 times higher than previously thought.  

The new higher figure equates to nearly 30% of food-system emissions, or 19% of total food-system emissions if you also include emissions associated with land-use change. The proportion is much higher than for other non-food commodities, where freight accounts for only around 7% of emissions.

When it comes to transport emissions, how the food is transported is crucial, so it’s not quite as simple as distance traveled. Airfreighting has the highest intensity, followed by road transport, with shipping having the lowest impact. The temperature matters too. Temperature-controlled transportation releases more than three times the amount of CO2 equivalent to ambient transport. Fruits and vegetables were singled out in the study as typically needing temperature-controlled transportation, often internationally. Because of this, their food-mile emissions are higher than foods transported at ambient temperatures.

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