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Dependency on fossil fuels affects food production too, study warns

The fossil fuel industry is investing heavily in petrochemicals to lock in the dependence of food production on oil, according to the report released on Thursday (2 November) by the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, a group of philanthropic foundations promoting sustainable food systems including Heinrich Böll Stiftung and Rockefeller Foundation.

The report is one of the first attempts by researchers to estimate the global use of fossil fuels and petrochemicals across the whole food supply chain.

Examples of dependency on petrochemicals include plastic used in packaging, as well as the industrial processes for the manufacturing of crop inputs such as pesticides and fertilisers.

While the processing and packaging stage remains the most energy-intensive component of the food system, “the growth, especially in fossil fuel consumption, is higher up in the supply chain,” the Global Alliance’s programme director Patty Fong told Euractiv.

“There is an increasing dependence on external fossil fuel-based inputs like fertilisers. This is where the petrochemical industry is expanding its markets,” she added.

This overreliance on fossil fuels in the food sector is expected to be raised at the 28th Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) starting at the end of November in Dubai.

For the first time, the UN’s annual environment summit will have a Food Day, and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) will outline its roadmap to keep the world within the internationally agreed 1.5-degree temperature limit.

The report also calls for a shift to agroecological production systems that are less reliant on external inputs, replacing residual needs with environmentally friendly solutions such as bio-fertilisers and on-farm pest management practices.

“Simply decarbonising fertilisers is not the answer. It is more than greenhouse gas emissions, there are other environmental impacts like water and air pollution,” said Fong.

The reduction of the environmental footprint and energy consumption in the food system, as well as an increase in its energy efficiency, are among the key points of the Farm to Fork strategy, the EU’s flagship food policy.

Hidden health costs

The report stressed that a reduction of the energy intensity of global food systems by 49% could have an impact by generating substantial health co-benefits.

Health costs are often overlooked, according to Fong. “These are borne by individuals and governments, not by the companies producing the food,” she said.

A potential benefit could be “shifting to more minimally processed plant-rich diets, particularly where meat and saturated-fat consumption is high or growing at levels that risk human and/or planetary health”, the report reads.

At the same time, many unhealthy products benefit from government subsidies, according to Fang. “If we redirect them towards the production of vegetables, fresh fruits and healthier crops, we will see shifts in costs,” she added.

The report warns of a Westernisation of diets, as “the marketing of ultra-processed foods in low-income regions is pushing out traditional foods and diets,” said Fong.

Ultra-processed products like snacks, soft drinks and ready-made meals are considered to be two to 10 times more energy-intensive than whole foods, according to a 2019 research.

High-income countries “need to take a leadership role” in moving away from such unhealthy products, said Fong.

“Plant-rich diets that are minimally processed are not only healthier for communities, but also climate-friendly,” she concluded.

[Edited by Gerardo Fortuna/Nathalie Weatherald]


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