Feds Can Fight Climate Change by Buying the Right Food

President Biden’s new directive is an exciting opportunity to leverage the federal government’s tremendous purchasing power to help curb dangerous climate change. It is imperative that food procurement be included.

President Biden recently directed the federal government to start the process of incorporating the Social Cost of Greenhouse Gases into its purchasing decisions. This offers a tremendous opportunity to leverage the federal government’s enormous purchasing power — over $630 billion in annual procurement — to shift markets towards more climate friendly and sustainable business products and practices. It is critical that food purchasing not be left out.

Agriculture’s climate footprint is staggering. Worldwide, food production, processing, and packaging account for more than one-third of total greenhouse gas emissions. In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that agricultural activities total about 11% of greenhouse gas emissions, although the real contribution of agriculture to climate change is at least double that when correctly including emissions from the manufacture of fertilizer and other inputs, land conversion, on-farm energy use, and the lost opportunity to store carbon. Excess fertilizer application releases nitrous oxide and cows constantly belch methane, which is also released from manure pits. Both are extremely potent greenhouse gases. Raising and feeding livestock and poultry is responsible for most of these emissions, adding up to almost 80% of all agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The full greenhouse gas emissions of meat production is enormous. The world’s five largest meat and dairy companies’ total emissions are greater than those of Exxon-Mobil, Shell, or BP. Emissions of the 20 largest meat and dairy companies are more than those of Germany, Canada, and the United Kingdom.

Given the enormous climate footprint of the agriculture sector, there is a powerful opportunity to reduce U.S. emissions by shifting federal food purchasing decisions. The federal government is one of the largest purchasers of food: in 2022, it contracted to purchase $8.5 billion worth of food products and services. The U.S. could significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions by shifting the types of food the government procures, particularly by purchasing less meat (particularly beef), of which many people eat amounts greater than recommended by the U.S. dietary guidelines. Fortunately there are many ways to do this including purchasing more grains and vegetables, beans, the many “alternative proteins” such as plant-based burgers and milks, and foods produced with climate-friendly practices such as organic or regenerative agriculture.

Biden’s directive to begin laying the groundwork to incorporate the social cost of greenhouse gases into the Federal government’s procurement decisions builds on two other proposed changes to purchasing decisions currently being considered by the Federal Acquisition Regulatory (FAR) Council. First, the FAR Council is considering recommendations to amend the Federal Acquisition Regulation to “minimize the risk of climate change in federal acquisition,” in an effort to reduce the federal government’s climate footprint and improve its overall sustainability. Second, the FAR Council proposed a new regulation in November 2022 that would require “major” federal suppliers to report their greenhouse gas emissions, including all emissions in their value chain.

To take full advantage of the federal government’s purchasing power to combat climate change, it is essential that the FAR Council address food procurement as it improves transparency and decision-making. Basic information is sorely needed in this sector. In fact, the accounting firm EY found that the agriculture, food, and forest products sector performed the worst of all nonfinancial sectors in terms of the quality of climate change disclosures. Further, the Corporate Climate Responsibility Monitor Report for 2023 concluded that the food and agriculture companies reviewed all scored low or very low on integrity for their climate change mitigation pledges and moderate, low, or very low on the transparency of those pledges. The food and agriculture companies scored worse than any other category reviewed, which included automotive manufacturers, electronics, fashion retail, shipping and aviation, and steel and cement.

Moreover, it is essential that the FAR Council include supply chain (“Scope 3”) emissions when considering the climate impact of purchasing decisions, despite strong resistance from industrial agriculture. The climate disclosure reports from the few major companies in the food sector that report comprehensive emissions show that Scope 3 emissions account for more than 90% of each company’s total greenhouse gas emissions:


Percent Scope 3 Emissions Based on CDP.net Data

Bunge Ltd.


General Mills Inc.


Hershey Co.


Modelez International Inc.


Starbucks Corp.


Wendy’s Co.


Yum! Brands Inc.


If any of the above companies only reported their operating and energy emissions — as many meat and agriculture lobbyists are urging — their climate impacts would be grossly understated and highly misleading. A consumer (including the federal government) thinking about the climate impacts of a food naturally includes all impacts of production, not just the few managed by the final corporate actor in the production chain. Indeed, without Scope 3 emissions, corporate structures can be manipulated to make the impacts of any given product look much lower than it actually is.

Some critics — including Big Ag — argue that reporting Scope 3 emissions is too expansive, difficult to quantify, and will be overly burdensome to report on. This plea for a special secrecy for agriculture is nothing new. For example, a loophole in the Farm Bill makes agriculture the only sector in which businesses receiving government payments for non-classified activities are shielded from public oversight, and a decade-long appropriations rider even limits reporting of agricultural air pollution. But there is no reason for this secrecy here. Existing reliable emission models would allow food manufacturers to calculate supply chain emissions without demanding burdensome information from each farm or supplier.

President Biden’s new directive is an exciting opportunity to leverage the federal government’s tremendous purchasing power to help curb dangerous climate change. It is imperative that food procurement be included.

Based in New York, Peter Lehner (@p_lehner) directs Earthjustice’s Sustainable Food & Farming Program, developing litigation, administrative, and legislative strategies to promote a more just and environmentally sound agricultural system and to reduce health, environmental, and climate harms from production of our food.

Based in Washington, D.C., Carrie is the deputy managing attorney of the Sustainable Food & Farming Program.

Earthjustice’s Sustainable Food and Farming program aims to make our nation’s food system safer and more climate friendly.