Changes in Food System Lead to Lower Greenhouse Gas Emissions

A new study has discovered that changes in trade, agriculture, and consumption and production of food following the downfall of the Soviet Union have led to a greater reduction in the emissions of greenhouse gas.

Between 1991 and 2011, there was a net emission reduction of 7.61 gigatons (Gt) of carbon dioxide equivalents—that is, equal to one-quarter of carbon dioxide emissions from deforestation in Latin America during the same period.

But the researchers involved in the study cautioned that constant changes in food systems in the post-Soviet Union countries indicate that the lower emissions will rebound in the end.

On June 20th, 2019, the researchers published their findings in Environmental Research Letters.

The global food system contributes significantly to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, so understanding the source of GHG emissions from the different components of food systems is important. A key aspect of this is assessing how changes in international trade patterns affect regional GHG emission balances. When the former Soviet Union collapsed, the transition from a planned to a market economy had drastic consequences for the region's agricultural sector and food systems. Higher prices and lower purchasing power reduced the consumption of meat, particularly beef. This fall in demand, coupled with a reduction in state support for agriculture, led to a halving in pig and cattle numbers. This collapse in the livestock sector led to widespread agricultural abandonment.

Dr Florian Schierhorn, Study Lead Author, Leibniz Institute of Agricultural Development in Transition Economies, Germany

The scientists used a database of land-use change and the related changes in soil organic carbon stocks to measure the emissions from agricultural production, which includes emissions from the trade of agricultural goods and livestock, and eventually estimated the effect of changes in food systems on GHG emissions.

Later, they determined the net cumulative change in GHG emissions of all years between 1991 and 2011, excluding the average emissions by the end of the Soviet Union.

The post-Soviet changes in GHG emissions from food production, food trade, and cropland extent led to a cumulative net reduction of 7.61 Gt CO2e from 1992 to 2011, compared to a scenario where emissions stayed at the late Soviet level. The most important reasons for this reduction were the decline in domestic livestock production, and soil organic carbon sequestration on abandoned cropland, particularly in Russia and Kazakhstan.

Dr Florian Schierhorn, Study Lead Author, Leibniz Institute of Agricultural Development in Transition Economies, Germany

The scientists, however, observed that the ongoing carbon balance has not been solved yet. Their research proposed various further developments, including the ability of the abandoned cropland to store extra significant carbon until mid-century, but with these gains probably being mitigated by the growth in agricultural development.

Moreover, buying agricultural products like beef could have an impact on these gains through the emissions of embodied carbon.

Once economies in the former Soviet Union had stabilised in the late 1990s, domestic food demand in the region started to rebound. The consumption of beef, for example, increased by 15 per cent between 2000 and 2008. However, beef production in the region had stagnated, and shows no signs of recovering. The demand meant it became the second largest importer of beef globally, with 80 per cent coming from South America. This is significant, because South American beef exports embody high GHG emissions, due to deforestation and inefficient production systems. This relationship shows how negative emissions due to agricultural land abandonment can be compromised by increasing emissions from rising agricultural imports. This situation is likely similar in many industrialized and emerging regions where agricultural land use has been contracting in the recent past.

Dr Florian Schierhorn, Study Lead Author, Leibniz Institute of Agricultural Development in Transition Economies, Germany


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