Emissions from the global agri-food system grew at a slower rate than non-food emissions in the period since 2000.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations (UN), the proportion of global greenhouse gas emissions accounted for by agri-food systems fell from 38% in 2000 to 31% in 2020.

Greenhouse gas emissions from agri-food systems increased by 9% from 2000. In contrast, overall global emissions were 34% higher than in 2000, dominated by fossil fuels and combustion for energy use. Non-food emissions grew almost 50% since 2000.

Global picture

Agri-food systems emissions are made up of emissions from the farmgate, pre- and post-production and land use change.

Over the two decades to 2020, pre- and post-production emissions grew the fastest at 45%, while farmgate emissions increased by 13% and those from land use change significantly decreased by 29%.

The reduction in land use change was largely as a result of the long-term slowdown in deforestation rates.

Carbon dioxide emissions from land-use change and methane emissions from enteric fermentation of ruminant livestock represented almost 40% of total agri-food systems emissions in 2020.

Emissions intensity decreasing

Emissions intensity is defined as the greenhouse gas emissions within the farmgate per unit weight of product.

Global emissions intensities varied significantly by product. In 2020, farmgate emissions by kilogramme of beef were 32kg CO2eq/kg, milk was 1kg CO2eq/kg and cereals were 1kg CO2eq/kg.

The FAO report a marked long-term declining trend across all commodities since 2000, reflecting increases in production efficiency over time. The largest reductions was for cow milk, which fell by 24%.

FAO data indicates that the emissions intensity of Irish beef has decreased by 21% since 2000, while milk fell by 25% in the same period.

Regional variations

There are interesting regional variations in agri-food systems emissions, which are to be expected given variations in intensity of production and processing.

In Africa and the Americas, emissions from land use change accounted for 44% and 31% respectively of the total agri-foood system emissions.

Conversely, pre- and post-production emissions were significant contributors in Asia and Europe. In Europe, this component accounted for more than half of agri-food emissions.

The emissions intensity of beef in 2020 was the lowest in Europe, which, at 17kg CO2eq/kg, was almost four times lower than in Africa and 1.7 times lower than in the Americas or Asia (29kg CO2eq/kg in both regions).

The emissions intensity of milk was highest in Africa and about three times more than in other regions. In Europe, it was about 0.7kg CO2eq/kg.

The emissions intensity of cow’s milk fell by 40% in Europe between 2000 and 2020, while beef fell by 3%.


The need to reduce emissions across all sectors and all walks of life is now critical, as the world is close to reaching 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels in the next five years.

The agri-food sector is no different and has significant potential to decarbonise and build carbon sinks for the future.

FAO data indicates the extent to which improved farm production efficiencies in Europe and Ireland have reduced the carbon intensity of production versus other regions.

Yet, EU and Irish policy will result in reduced production within the region with no guaranteed corresponding reduction in consumption.

In fact, FAO OECD projects that food consumption in the next decade will increase by 1.4% per annum driven by low- and medium-income countries. Consumption of both meat and dairy will grow, resulting in corresponding increased production.

The real prize for the European Union and indeed Ireland is a relentless effort to reduce the carbon intensity of output, which would yield a greater impact on global emissions than simply cutting production.