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Fossil fuels: The hidden enemy in our global food supply chain

A recent study has highlighted the pervasive nature of fossil fuels within the global food supply chain, with a stark warning that major oil corporations are cementing their influence from production to consumption.

Approximately 15% of the world's annual fossil fuel consumption is attributed to the food sector, surpassing the combined emissions of the European Union and Russia.


The investigation, conducted by the Global Alliance for the Future of Food alongside Dalberg Advisors, marks the first comprehensive analysis of fossil fuel usage throughout the entire food supply network. As the energy and transport sectors gradually shift towards renewable sources, the report indicates that oil and gas companies are strategically working to maintain the food industry's reliance on fossil fuel-derived pesticides, fertilisers, and plastic packaging.


The use of plastics, a significant component in food packaging, is predicted by the International Energy Agency to account for nearly half of the projected oil demand growth by 2050. Presently, plastics and fertilisers constitute 40% of petrochemical products. The report underscores that oil firms are fully aware of the growth opportunities within the global food market and are intent on preserving the current system.


Patty Fong, a programme director at the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, emphasised the critical need for a swift transition to renewable energy and the adoption of regenerative and agroecological farming practices. This shift is not only environmentally essential but also crucial for ensuring affordability, food security, job creation, public health, and the fight against hunger.


The study also points out that with an anticipated rise in food demand by 35-56% by 2050, there will be an increase in the sales of processed and packaged foods, which are more energy-intensive than whole foods. For instance, ultra-processed dairy products require up to ten times more energy than fresh milk.


To avert severe climate change, the report calls for a decisive break from the fossil fuel industry's ties with food systems. It recommends that governments should prioritise whole foods over processed alternatives and address the excessive use of fossil fuel-based agrochemicals in farming by promoting bio-fertilisers and low-carbon methods.


The Global Alliance's earlier research posits that altering our food production methods could reduce emissions by 20%, helping to maintain global temperatures at a relatively safe average of 1.5°C.


The report's findings serve as a clarion call for a radical overhaul of our global food systems. It paints a picture of an industry at a crossroads, where the decisions made today will have long-lasting implications for the climate crisis. The entrenchment of fossil fuels in food production, processing, and distribution not only exacerbates carbon emissions but also undermines efforts to achieve a sustainable and equitable food future.


The analysis reveals that the food industry's dependence on fossil fuels is multifaceted. From the diesel fuelling farm machinery to the natural gas underpinning the production of synthetic fertilizers, and the petrochemicals integral to food packaging, the sector's carbon footprint is both deep and wide. This reliance poses significant risks, not just environmentally, but also economically, as volatility in fossil fuel markets can lead to instability in food prices and supply.


The report also highlights the stark contrast between the current industrialized food system and the potential benefits of a greener approach. By investing in local food systems, encouraging organic farming, and reducing food waste, we can significantly cut down on the energy required to feed the population. Such practices not only reduce emissions but also enhance biodiversity, improve soil health, and strengthen the resilience of local communities against climate change.


The urgency for change is further underscored by the looming threat of climate change on food security. Extreme weather events, from droughts to floods, are becoming more frequent and severe, threatening crops and livestock. The transition to a low-carbon food system is not just about reducing emissions; it's about ensuring that there is enough food for a growing global population in a warming world.


In response to these challenges, the report calls for concerted action from governments, industry, and civil society. Policies that incentivize sustainable farming practices, investments in renewable energy, and research into low-carbon food technologies are crucial. The report also advocates for a shift in consumer behaviour, encouraging a move away from high-energy processed foods to more sustainable, plant-based diets.


As the world grapples with the twin challenges of climate change and food security, the report serves as a reminder that the food system we choose to support today will determine the health of our planet and its inhabitants for generations to come.


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