How we grow food, consume it and waste it may play a big role in whether the world can avert a climate catastrophe, environmentalists and climate change analysts say. One big obstacle to changing the most damaging practices is that many of them are in fact encouraged and financially incentivized by countries — including the U.S. — possibly pushing us faster toward a world that’s too dangerously warm.

“If we do everything right — if we reduce energy-related emissions [and] transportation-related emissions as much as we all need, and we don’t address emissions from agriculture, we are still not going to avoid a climate catastrophe,” said Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs at the nonprofit Environmental Working Group.

The global food system — the growing, processing, transporting, distributing, consumption and disposal of food — makes up a third of greenhouse gas emissions every year. From cutting down trees for grazing cattle, to food waste in landfills, each stage of the food system creates greenhouse gases: a study published in March estimated that emissions from food production and waste alone could push global temperatures up by as much as 1.1 degrees Celsius (1.98 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century. 

Methane is the second biggest greenhouse gas producer after carbon dioxide, and it’s 25 times as powerful as CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere. Overall, high-methane foods are on track to make up more than 80% of food-related warming by 2100. Livestock and agriculture are big methane producers — particularly cattle and rice. Manure and gas from cows is rich in methane, as are rice paddies, which emit the gas after they’re flooded. 

In the U.S., perhaps the most influential factor in agriculture policy affecting climate change is the farm bill, a massive, contentious measure that sets agriculture policies and regulations. It’s passed by Congress every five years and is up for renewal this year. 

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) published an analysis of U.S. agriculture spending from 2017-2020, a period during which the environmental quality incentives program of the farm bill provided more than $3.6 billion of funding to farmer. But EWG found that just 23% of incentive payments “were for practices that mitigate climate change,” according to the Agriculture Department’s own list of “climate-smart practices and enhancements.”

Some of those climate-smart practices include converting manure into organic fertilizer, improving soil health by increasing plant diversity and minimizing soil disturbance. 

But implementing new and climate-friendly practices may be costly and adversely affect yield, cutting into farmers’ bottom lines and making their crops or herds less attractive to investors and buyers. That reality, according to the World Economic Forum, has resulted in a cycle in the U.S. that rewards “the systems that are least regenerative, emit the most greenhouse gases, and result in the most land degradation.” These damaging systems, the World Economic Forum said, “are the most likely to have access to capital.”

The EWG analysis found that the majority of environmental quality incentives program practices funded by the farm bill were for structures, equipment or facilities that were not even on the department’s “climate-smart” list, and further some of the items receiving the most funding, like waste storage facilities, which are used for manure, actually increase methane emissions, a point that has been acknowledged by the Agriculture Department. The department has a list of climate-friendly alternatives for managing cattle waste, among them, the use of microbes to anaerobically digest manure or composting, but all of these approaches come with attendant costs or labor.

Globally, leaders have agreed to dramatically decrease agriculture sector emissions. In 2021, 111 countries, making up 45% of global methane emissions, signed an agreement to reduce methane emissions 30% by 2030, and 145 countries signed on to reverse deforestation — which is mostly caused by cattle ranching — by 2030

In 2015,196 parties adopted the international Paris Agreement to keep global average temperatures from warming more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) as compared to pre-Industrial times. But since then, average global temperatures have already increased by at least 1.1 degrees Celsius; meaning, emissions related to our food system alone would push warming past the agreement’s ceiling.

“When people think about climate the focus usually snaps to fossil fuels, renewable energy, and that makes sense because it’s the leading driver [of emissions], but food is this super underappreciated part of it. We eat three times a day, so it’s something that we can actually do something about,” said Richard Waite, senior research associate of the World Resources Institute’s food and climate programs. 

The role of the global food system in producing greenhouse gas emissions has not been fully recognized by much of the world. Only a third of the 194 countries that signed the Paris Agreement reference food-system mitigation measures in their climate goals. 

There have been climate-focused food system bills passed in Washington outside of the farm bill. In January, President Joe Biden signed the Food Donation Improvement Act, which promised to reduce food waste and insecurity. But the bill, Faber said, is just one example of congressional action that is too “incremental.” 

Amanda Little, a food systems expert at Vanderbilt University agrees that more action is required beyond the Food Donation Improvement Act, but she praised the legislation in a Bloomberg opinion piece, as an important step toward resolving “the gross contradiction between food excess and food scarcity in America.”

She pointed out that the new law will make it much easier for businesses, schools, farms and markets to donate their large surpluses of food directly to communities that need it by relieving them of liabilities related to food quality or spoilage. Previously, Little points out, they were required to make their food donations indirectly — to food banks that might be far away — and the food bank would then redistribute the food, a practice that in many cases was so impractical that it was just easier to throw away the extra food, instead of dealing with the logistics of donating it.

The U.S., historically the world’s largest emitter, does not mention curbing food waste in its latest emissions targets, even though nearly 40% of all food is wasted here. The U.S. should be leading the way on this issue, says Pete Pearson, of the World Wildlife Fund: “We’ve got to have food loss and waste linked to our climate goals, period.”

And environmentalists worry that change is not happening fast enough, says Wait. He said that in some cases, mitigation measures need to be moving “five to six times” faster than current trends in order to meet global climate goals.

Last year, the World Resources Institute published a study that examined the world’s progress in meeting climate goals. In the food and agriculture sector, WRI found that ruminant meat productivity trends — that is, the meat of cattle, sheep and goats — were “off track” and greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural production were moving in the “wrong direction.”

Meat consumption is on the rise across the globe. As more wealth is created in emerging economies, such as China and Brazil, more meat is eaten, and the U.S. consumes more meat than any other country. 

For years, studies and media reports have encouraged more plant-heavy diets and less red meat, arguing the shift could reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A study published in Nature found that if diets globally were limited to one serving of red meat per week and all other animal protein to two servings per day, global warming due to food consumption would decrease by 0.19 °C by the end of the century.