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Tackling the Agricultural Carbon Footprint: Challenges and Solutions in the food chain

Eveliina Heikkala

From carbon accounting to climate action

The agricultural sector plays a central role in the food chain: it is and will continue to be the primary source of food in the future. However, the carbon footprint of agriculture forms a significant part of the entire value chain’s emissions, giving it immense potential for positive impact and emission reductions. This is precisely why understanding and reducing the agricultural carbon footprint is an important, if not the most important, part of food companies’ efforts towards net zero.

You can also find this article in video format. Watch it below.

Emissions in the food chain

The journey of food from field to table involves many stages, such as:

  • Primary production (agriculture)
  • Transport
  • Processing
  • Packaging
  • Retail
  • Consumption
  • Waste management & recycling

Each of these stages causes greenhouse gas emissions. In industrialized countries, a large part of these emissions, typically over 60%, originates from primary production. These emissions are accounted for in food companies’ Scope 3 emissions, which companies will have to report from 2024 onwards with the implementation of the CSRD directive. Additionally, if a company has set net-zero targets, it is advisable to identify and take climate actions specifically regarding these primary production emissions.

It is notable that up to a third of the food consumed by humanity is wasted, which in turn causes completely unnecessary emissions at all stages of the food chain.

Agricultural carbon footprint and its sources

Agricultural emissions are composed of various factors. Soil organic carbon, especially from peatlands, plays a significant role. The comparison between organic and mineral soils reveals varying emission profiles, influenced by practices such as tillage. In addition, nitrous oxide and methane emissions from fertilizers, livestock, and agricultural energy use are key factors in the formation of the agricultural carbon footprint.

Collaboration between food companies and agricultural producers is essential for implementing effective climate actions. Cooperation can encourage the adoption of regenerative farming principles, moving away from industrial fertilizers, utilizing renewable energy, and reducing waste.

From accounting to action

Emission calculation is becoming commonplace in the food sector. Following various standards and protocols, as well as calculation methods, is important and time-consuming. Challenges can arise in ensuring data quality, engaging value chain suppliers, and uncertainty in calculations. Overcoming these challenges is crucial for tracking and reporting emissions.

However, climate experts’ time should be freed from emission calculations to carry out effective and concrete emission reduction actions. In the food industry, these actions are made in agriculture, in collaboration with farmers and producers. Through cooperation, innovative solutions, and commitment to regenerative farming, we can significantly reduce the agricultural carbon footprint.

Next read: Farmer’s climate actions support food companies’ net-zero targets

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