What is the single most important change I can make to reduce the carbon footprint of my food?
Eating less meat (especially beef) and dairy is the action which will have the highest impact on reducing the carbon footprint of your diet.
Does food have an impact on climate change?
The impact of food on climate change is very significant; from industrial agriculture, to the processing of foods, to the global trade of food and food wastage, food has an impact on the environment at every step of the supply chain. Industrial methods used in the mass production of food are energy- and resource-intensive. Agriculture is responsible for roughly 80 per cent of all food systems emissions, and for 75 per cent of global deforestation – a major driver of climate change.
Different food products have different carbon footprints, depending on where and how they are produced, as well as how they are processed, distributed and disposed of. For example, one kilo of beef has a much bigger carbon footprint than a kilo of chicken, but both of these have a vastly bigger footprint than that of, say, a kilo of lentils.
Is eating meat harmful for the environment?
The current consumption rate of meat in Western, industrialised countries is environmentally unsustainable. The UN Food & Agriculture Organisation has reported that livestock are responsible for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and some think that this figure may be much higher.
Industrially processed meat is resource intensive: 30% of arable land is used to grow livestock feed, and significantly more water is used in the rearing and processing of meat. Roughly 16,000 litres of water are needed to produce one kilo of beef, compared to 50 litres for a kilo of potatoes. Freshwater supplies are being depleted at far greater rates than they are being renewed, and shortages are already being seen in many parts of the world.
Rearing fewer animals for meat production would free up land to grow crops for human consumption, something which will become increasingly necessary in order to ensure food security for a growing global population. Some consider it a humanitarian issue, highlighting the inequalities involved in feeding livestock grains fit for human consumption, when over 1 billion people do not have enough to eat.
If current dietary patterns do not change, we will not be able to fulfil the target of curbing global warming at 2°C, nor will we be able to feed a growing population without sacrificing huge amounts of remaining land and water resources.
Organic food is produced using environment and animal friendly methods, so one of the reasons for buying organic food is that it has a less harmful impact on the environment, at a local level at least. For example, non-organic, intensive farming tends to rely on the use of pesticides which damage soil, harm wildlife, and contaminate water supplies. Of the ‘non-organic’ foods sold in the UK, around 46% contain pesticide residues; one of the most widely used herbicides, Roundup, contains glyphosphate, a chemical which has been deemed ‘probably carcinogenic to humans’ by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Whether the levels found on foodstuffs are significant enough to pose a risk to human health is open to contention. Organic food production and farming methods also can support higher biodiversity, meaning organic crops and livestock are less prone to mass outbreaks of disease.
On the other hand, organic certification can be expensive for agricultural producers, and organic food products expensive for the consumer. You can look for ‘non-spray’ vegetables at farmers’ markets as an alternative. It is also important to note that a significant amount of organic food products are imported, sometimes by air freight. Organic food also generally produces lower yields, meaning a greater amount of land must be converted to agriculture to match non-organic yields, which can lead to greater habitat destruction, although the soil remains healthy for longer, so may overall give a greater yield over many years. Organic yields are also increasing as soil ecology becomes better understood.
Is it always better to eat locally grown or produced food?
On the whole, locally grown produce tends to have a lower carbon footprint, and are therefore less harmful to the environment. Buying food from a local producer or supplier usually means that the product had a shorter journey ‘from farm to fork’, and as a result, is responsible for a smaller amount of GHG emissions through its transportation.
However, some food items produce more emissions when grown in Europe than if they had been produced in other parts of the world: for example, vegetables grown in greenhouses in Europe are more carbon intensive, due to the energy needed to generate heat, than those grown in hot climates in South-East Asia.
Some food items not grown in the UK, such as bananas, grains and pulses, are shipped rather than air-freighted, and therefore have a very low carbon footprint despite high food miles. Mike Berners-Leigh deals with this issue in his book How Bad are Bananas – read our review here.
Buying locally produced food does help protect and support local economies – you can find out where to buy local produce in Cambridge by taking a look at our Sustainable Food Directory.
How big a problem is food waste?
UK households throw away 7 million tonnes of food each year, roughly equivalent to chucking out £60 worth of food a month per household! Households are responsible for roughly half of the UK’s food waste figures. Globally, 30% of all food doesn’t get eaten, although food waste occurs at different stages in the food chain in different parts of the world.
When we throw away food, we don’t just waste the product itself, but we also waste the resources that went into making it, including water and energy. If food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, after the USA and China. It is worth noting that more than enough food is produced worldwide to feed the entire population comfortably, but problems in distribution, fluctuating demands, and social inequity mean that much is wasted.
Why should I compost?
When food goes to landfill, it decomposes anaerobically and releases methane gas as a result; this is a GHG which contributes to climate change. Composting returns valuable nutrients to the soil, and helps maintain soil’s pH balance and moisture levels – so you’re doing your garden a favour! If you can’t compost at home, put your kitchen food waste into your green bin.
- Ecological Footprint Explorer – The Global Footprint Network’s open data workspace to help analyze ecological footprint data from around the world
- Foodsource – A free online guide to food systems and sustainability by FCRN
- FCRN – Food Climate Research Network based in Oxford
- CEDAR – Centre for Diet and Activity Research based in Cambridge
- Soil Association
- CGIAR Big Facts – Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security
- University of Cambridge Sustainable Food Policy
- Guide to How to Eat Ethically and Sustainably – Lots of useful information about seasonal fruit and veg as well as links to seasonal recipes