The Carbon Footprint of Food

Food production is responsible for a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions. It’s an astounding figure made even more so by the fact that a third of all food produced globally is wasted

We’re regularly told to reduce the number of flights we take each year and to switch to electric cars or to use public transport, but what about the carbon footprint of the food we’re eating?

Do we need to spend less time counting calories and more time counting carbon emissions?

What is a Carbon Footprint?

A carbon footprint is the amount of greenhouse gas emitted by individuals, businesses, organisations or countries that ‘support human activity’

The most common greenhouse gas emission is carbon dioxide which is released when fossil fuels such as oil, gas and coal are burned. 

The carbon footprint of food refers to the greenhouse gases emitted during the growing or manufacturing of an edible product; it includes the use of chemical fertilizers, electricity, water, packaging, transport and storage.  

Why Does Meat Have a Bigger Carbon Footprint?

Meat and dairy have the biggest carbon footprints of all food produced globally.  About 50% of food greenhouse gas emissions come from beef and lamb. 

Raising cattle, for example, requires 160 times more land than potato farming and produces more than 11 times the greenhouse emissions

Chopping down forests to accommodate large herds also releases carbon dioxide into the air

Cows are notorious for emitting methane due to a type of bacteria in the animal’s gut.  More cattle means more methane: a greenhouse gas 8 times more potent than carbon dioxide).

Beef is a very resource-intensive meat.  It takes more water, land and feed to grow and sustain cattle.  Beef cattle also make ‘less efficient use of their food’ and also ‘lose the bulk of the energy they consume’.  The carbon footprint of beef and dairy, therefore, is much bigger than, say, chicken or lamb. 

Once the animals have been slaughtered there’s the additional need for refrigeration, packaging and transport all of which are energy-intensive, requiring the burning of fossil fuels. 

Chicken is the most carbon-friendly animal protein source that you can buy. According to the National Geographic ‘Chickens are far more efficient in converting feed into meat protein, and that reduces the amount of land, fertiliser, and energy involved, resulting in a light carbon footprint.’

Why Do Avocados Have a High Carbon Footprint?

It’s easy to lambast the meat and dairy industry but some fruits, vegetables and nuts aren’t so carbon friendly either. Almonds need a huge amount of water to grow successfully and intensive farming in California has actually been a contributing factor in recent droughts.  Avocados, too, require a lot of water, fertilizer, pesticides and energy in order to be ready for export to Europe and North America.  And that’s before they’ve been refrigerated, wrapped in plastic and transported.  Referred to by some as ‘green gold’ avocados not only need to be thoroughly hydrated but they’re also grown as a single crop which means they’re grown in the same place for consecutive years. The You Matter website says this is good for the producer but not so great for the land itself which eventually becomes overused and prone to disease forcing farmers to use more pesticides and fertilizer.  In Mexico, there’s already been considerable deforestation in order to create the space needed to grow avocados. There’s also now enough money in the industry to have attracted the attention of Mexican cartels who are harassing local farmers.  Proving the latest food trends can have real implications for farmers thousands of miles away. 

Will Buying Locally Help?

Buying local produce seems like an obvious and easy way to reduce your carbon footprint. And it’s probably true if you’re growing your own vegetables on an allotment or in your back garden.  What’s less clear is whether buying local produce from your supermarket or local shop is always better for the environment. 

In 2008, An article in The Guardian explained that green beans air freighted from Kenya could actually use less carbon that those grown in the UK.  That’s because in Kenya the beans are grown without chemical fertilizers, they’re picked by hand and Kenyan farmers aren’t using tractors so they’re not burning diesel.  Gareth Thomas, then Minister for Trade and Development, was quoted as saying that ‘Driving 6.5 miles to buy your shopping emits more carbon than flying a pack of Kenyan green beans to the UK.’

It shows that carbon footprint calculations have to be based on more than just mileage.

The article goes on to highlight that British Braeburn apples are picked many months before they’re likely to be bought by consumers. Stored carefully in order to supply supermarkets, stocks of the apples remain well beyond the UK growing season. Therefore, by August, the author writes, these apples will have been in storage for 10 months – think about the energy used during that time to keep them all fresh. During this later period of storage, its actually less carbon intensive to fly Braeburns in from New Zealand. 

The environmental impact of the food we eat is more complicated than just adding up the airmiles; there are entire production and logistical chains to consider, too. Once consumers begin understanding the real environmental impact of the food they’re eating, they might just be prepared to put more sustainable products into their shopping baskets. 

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