New Report Issues Damning Verdict on Food’s Fossil Fuel Addiction

By Clare Carlile, a Researcher at DeSmog, focusing on the agribusiness sector. Prior to joining the organisation in July 2022, she was Co-Editor and Researcher at Ethical Consumer Magazine, where she specialised in migrant workers’ rights in the food industry. Her work has been published in The Guardian and New Internationalist. Originally published at DeSmog.

Food systems are responsible for at least 15 percent of all global fossil fuel consumption, according to a major report launched ahead of the COP28 climate summit.

The analysis shows that the production, transport, and storage of food are driving greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to those of the EU and Russia combined. 

Ultra processed foods like snacks, drinks and ready meals, along with chemical fertilisers made from natural gas, are singled out as major sources of pollution.

Published today (Thursday), the research comes weeks before global leaders gather in Dubai to discuss ways to limit catastrophic global heating. Food is set to be a major focus at this year’s annual climate conference, which is hosted by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) from November 30. 

The Global Alliance for the Future of Food, a coalition of philanthropic organisations, and consultancy firm Dalberg Advisors published the report, which is titled: “Power Shift: Why We Need to Wean Industrial Food Systems Off Fossil Fuels”.

Its authors found that even if governments delivered on their 2030 climate pledges, by 2037 food-related fossil fuel use alone would blow the remaining portion of the 1.5C carbon budget, an estimate of the maximum amount of carbon dioxide emissions that can be emitted before tipping the planet into dangerous levels of global heating.

A third of the world’s food production is at risk from climate breakdown, and climate disasters are already increasing malnutrition in some parts of the world, according to UN scientists at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). At the same time, food systems are also a major contributor to global warming, accounting for over a third of total emissions worldwide.

Scientists and campaigners have raised major concerns about the lack of global action ahead of the COP28 summit, in a year of devastating impacts from climate-related weather events. The UAE is one of the world’s 10 largest producers of oil, and is also investing heavily in petrochemicals.  

Patty Fong, programme director of climate and health & well-being at the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, and contributor to the report, told DeSmog that phasing out fossil fuels was crucial to the food industry’s green transition.

“Industrial food systems have a fossil fuel problem,” she said. “We cannot transform food systems and make them climate friendly until we have weaned our food systems — alongside other economic sectors — off oil and gas.”

Fossil Fuel Lock-in

The meat and dairy industry’s high methane emissions are increasingly well known. But this is the first time that the food systems’ dependency on fossil fuels have been calculated in this way. 

The report identifies multiple drivers for the fossil fuel dependency – from energy-intensive ultra processed foods like snacks, drinks and ready meals in high income countries, to the global reliance on fossil fuel-based chemicals for crop production.

It finds that the majority of fossil fuel consumption is in the processing and packaging stage (42 percent), and in retail consumption and waste (38 percent). Agriculture production accounts for 20 percent of energy use in food systems, with fossil fuel use to produce fertilisers expected to increase substantially through 2050.

Natural gas is the basis for chemical fertilisers and pesticides, which are used to increase the growth of crops and kill off pests. Plastic packaging is produced from natural gas and crude oil.

The International Energy Agency (IEA), the global energy watchdog, warns that petrochemicals could drive a third of all growth in oil demand by 2030 and half by 2050.

In the United States alone, the fossil fuel industry planned investments of over $164 billion in petrochemicals between 2016 and 2023. Forty percent of petrochemicals – which are produced from fossil fuels – are used in food-related plastics and fertilisers. 

Fong said that the fossil fuel sector was heavily investing in these industries in the face of the increasing demands for a transition away from oil, gas and coal for energy.

“We know that this is where the petrochemical industry is placing their bets,” she said. 

“Decarbonisation of energy is shifting overtime. But synthetic fertiliser use is growing. We have to head off this growth.”

Just Transition

The report finds that any fossil fuel phase-out plans will need to be backed by major shifts in consumption and food markets. This includes supporting diets to be less fossil fuel intensive – for example moving away from ultra-processed foods to healthier alternatives. 

These kinds of changes will require tackling the power of major corporate interests in the food industry, which is dominated by a handful of petrochemical, plastics, pesticide and fertiliser companies with a vested interest in maintaining fossil fuel dependency, the report says. Powerful processing companies, for example, make vast profits from energy-intensive goods like fast food and soft drinks. 

Investigations by DeSmog have found major efforts by food corporations and allied governments to frame the debate on food and agriculture emissions in terms of  technological solutions over more transformative changes, or those that reference dietary change. DeSmog researchers have also documented the use of greenwashing terms by industry to capture discussions ahead of COP28.

Fong said she was concerned that current responses to food and energy crises had seen governments and corporations double down on certain fossil fuel use, such as fertilisers. 

“Oil prices shot up, commodity prices shot up, and the response was ‘we just need better access to fertiliser’,” she said. “How do we instead use this to create more resilience in the food system?

“This is not just about decarbonising chemical fertilisers. It’s about transitioning to regenerative and agroecological practices.”

Additional research by Rachel Sherrington

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. ArkansasAngie

    15% from food production, transportation and storage. That seems almost small. Especially when you consider most of us don’t plan on not eating any time soon.

    I do suggest that prior to “messing” with our food supply chain too much that you verify that it will NOT result in people starving. For example … we need fertilizer. Brazil exports grains all over the world.

    .Don’t rush these “theories” to the forefront before extensive study and verification, You know kinda like getting the EV out the door before actually being viable/reliable. How’s those $250,000 Hummer owners feeling now that slow/low demand has dropped their price to $100,000

    I’m thinking stopping wars would make a bigger impact than making my flour prices go up.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      I think the figure is a bit misleading – from what I can see from the report this is for emissions from food production and distribution, but not including agriculture and related uses. Most figures I’ve seen indicate that around 25% of emissions worldwide are directly from agriculture. It can be confusing as so many reports and authors conflate different elements of agriculture/forestry/landuse/food production, sometimes leading to bad policy. As one example, see the general confusion over the issue of food miles.

    2. clarky90

      TPTB are preparing a plausible personal alibi for a food embargo of the World’s “useless eaters”. (inconvenient/surplus to requirements)

      If the TPTB were even remotely worried about carbon fueled “Climate Change” (trade mark), they would stop, ALL flying in private jets, and cease funding ALL wars. (God forbid)

      No, they are merely establishing plausible deniability. An alibi…. No knowledge of, no responsibility for…
      Ewwwww, yukkkkk….The Evil carbon did it!

      cue, a flood of insufferable crocodile tears …..

      Take note of the unfolding Holodomor in Gaza, and the lawyerly, convoluted arguments……… explaining, justifying, making nice …….

      ….oh! oh!, now, now look over here….!

  2. The Rev Kev

    If crunch time comes a lot sooner than people expect it, how are all those industrial farms suppose to work with either oil at sky high process or perhaps not available at all? Who gets first dibs on low oil supplies – farmers or the Pentagon? I mean seriously, when I think of the amount of oil used in fertilizers, pesticides, farm machinery, food transportation and god know what else, we have bet the bank on only this method of food production. Going back to sustainable farming practices will be painful and will mean that a lot of food will have to be for local markets. States will likely not allow food produced there to be shipped out of State to more lucrative markets if they have starving mobs converging at the State capital. Think California. But I think that the biggest hindrance to any changes will not be so much those food corporations as the farmers themselves who will demand that everything stay the same.

  3. LY

    It’s hard to be optimistic here. Same story as elsewhere: the lack of leadership, the inability to prioritize, and industry lobbying.

    I think that meat will be one of the toughest obstacles. Changing how meat is produced, and ultimately, eating less meat is contrary to culture. Eating meat is sign of status, and unlike owning a car, there’s no alternative. I’m confident China’s government can survive a real estate collapse. It won’t survive a collapse in pork production.

    And as for real life examples, Sri Lanka’s ban is a cautionary tale.

    1. Irrational

      Hubby and I like our meat and find it a convenient way to get proteins. But our standard portion is around 5-6 ounces per person on the days we have meat. IT is of course possible to get your protein in other ways, but some involve excessive use of water (e.g. almonds), are undesirable in large quantities for other health reasons (eggs -> cholesterol) or are problematic in other ways (nuts -> allergies). Fish farms pollute the ocean.
      I have also been told by a doctor (though have not researched) that as you get older it is important to have protein in every meal.
      So what else is one to do except reduce portion size?
      P.S. We do not eat any ready meals, none.

      1. thousand points of green

        Speaking as a pure layman, I remember reading somewhere that to maintain the living-protein part of one’s body weight where it currently is, that one needs roughly ” one gram of pure protein per kilogram of overall body mass” to maintain the protein-part of one’s weight where it is. Beyond that, I have no knowledge.

        One could achieve the twin goals of meat-use-reduction and ecosystem support by deciding to eat grass-pasture-and range meat strictly and only and never ever eat any CAFO-derived meat. Artisanal eco-meat should be high priced enough that the higher prices would all by themselves take care of the “eat less” part. If, let’s say, your meat-budget is $20 per week, you can either buy one pound of Gabe Brown’s ” nature’s way” beef at $20 per pound, or you can buy many pounds of mainstream CAFO junk-beef at the local Big Bulk for that same $20. Which approach is eco-friendlier?

      2. Adam Eran

        To (over) simplify things terribly: Protein is just a carbohydrate with a nitrogen or two attached. We excrete the nitrogen, mostly. Recommended reading: Garth Davis’ Proteinaholic: How Our Obsession with Meat Is Killing Us and What We Can Do About It. Davis is a bariatric surgeon–the guy who staples stomachs, among other things.

        USians eat way too much protein.

        If you’re really concerned about getting enough, beans and rice will supply all you need (legume + grain = complete protein).

        There are plenty of examples of the harm meat and dairy do to our health (cf, or, or Colin Campbell’s The China Study).

        Being a carnivore is completely unnecessary, and, speaking from 30+ years of experience, not that tough to avoid if you’re not a perfectionist about it.

        That said, diets are deeply personal, and I’ve never managed to convince anyone to change theirs.

        1. thousand points of green

          I assume the nitrogen we excrete from protein is from the protein we eat surplus to our body maintainance and/or growth needs. Any amino acids from protein torn down into its amino acids which are not then worked back up into the body’s own protein mass-fraction is then de-aminated and the leftover carbohydrate burned. Am I assuming correctly?

  4. arthur bryant

    Agree with EMC. For example, Pimentel, “Food, Energy, and Society,” 3rd Ed. Near as I can tell when oil starts running low (2030-2050) and the carry capacity of the earth drops down to around 2-4 billion humans, there will be a Great Die-Off. And because we don’t want a bunch of angry hungry people running around watch for some new deadly flu viruses from China (or wherever) (which will serve the same function as a controlled burn in forest management). Have a nice day.

    1. Paris

      The propaganda would have you believe ethanol is green and renewable, so it’s all good right? /sarc

  5. farmboy

    On the farm, start with a cover crop or a companion crop that produces and fixes nitrogen. Next cover crop or in crop mixes that suppress weed and disease incidence. The idea to produce crop inputs on the farm needs to be supported. The marketing pipeline for end use needs to start close to the farm. All this can be incentivised and farmers will buy it and sell it!

  6. NYMutza

    Is it a good idea to ship food around the world? Is it a good idea to enable expansions of human populations in regions of the world that are not and never will be food self-sufficient? Perhaps food production and consumption should always be local. No large scale exports of grains, meats, produce, etc…That will reduce both the production of surplus foodstuffs as well as the consumption of fossil fuels to produce the food and ship it around the globe. In the “wild” populations decline when food supplies decline. Humans are part of the wild and so the same should apply to human populations. This is the only way to achieve any semblance of sustainability. Failure to achieve sustainability will only lead to the loss of perhaps billions of people through starvation, wars, diseases, and so on. How compassionate is that?

    1. Laura in So Cal

      Anecdote: My husband really loves the seedless tangerines (“cuties”) that you buy in the 3lb-5lb net bags. I make a priority of only eating fruit in season to try to avoid food miles and high prices. The season for cuties here is basically Jan-April when you get California grown citrus. Back in August, he saw some great looking cuties at the market. I checked and they were from Peru. We got stone fruit and a melon instead. Last week, more beautiful cuties FROM Australia…we bought California grapes instead. Obviously other people are buying these since they are being continually stocked…sigh.

      1. thousand points of green

        Since ” society” is not ready to endure the necessary changes yet, or even any little inconvenience, it becomes up to the small minority of eco-ethical customers/eaters to make their purchasing decisions the way you make your purchasing decisions in order to keep a small surviving stub of local and semi-local production and producers in existence against the day when “society” might be ready to adopt that approach and a near-totally localized and regionalocalized system of systems can be built out and spread around from the little stubs of local and regionalocal production which exist today.

        For now, eco-ethical producers and consumers should regard themselves as the present day equivalent of the early pre-medieval Irish Monks who preserved key texts of civilization through the Dark Age they were living through in their Monasteries.

        We are entering the start of our own Dark Ages, including the Digital Dark Ages we are heading into. ( The “Dark Age” is called “dark” because there is so little historical record surviving from it into our own time. The “Digital Dark Age” is called that because when digital civilization collapses and disappears, all the information stored digitally will also collapse and disappear. Anything not saved in hard meatspace analog formats will disappear, including all trace of blogs like this one.)

        Learn it, Live it, Love it. Embrace the suck.

      2. Revenant

        Ironically, the transport savings of eating Californian produce in CA may be outweighed by the production carbon profligacy that is structural in CA economy. It might be better to eat the ones from Peru whose farmers don’t have running water or electric light.

  7. Henry Moon Pie

    The absurdity of our food system is apparent when energy inputs and outputs are considered. Agriculture once produced 5 to 10 times the amount of energy input. Now it takes 5 to 10 units of fossil fuel energy input to produce one energy unit of food. That’s obviously not sustainable.

    Our current food system is extremely efficient at minimizing human labor inputs. It is just as inefficient when it comes to energy. Given that energy is going to become much more expensive, we’re going to have to reverse the trend of the last 100 years and greatly increase the amount of human labor expended in agriculture.

  8. Adam Eran

    You make some good points. Michael Pollan reports that it takes 10 calories of petroleum to produce one calorie of carrot… And given the current structure of agricultural subsidies, it’s no accident that a calorie of high-fructose corn syrup is cheaper than a calorie of carrot.

    1. thousand points of green

      One eats a carrot for more than just the calories. One also eats it for the minerals, vitamins, other nutrients. Same for many other foods. Food is for more than just brute calories.

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