How To Cut Your Food Carbon Footprint

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Published by: Chef Matty Riedel • Updated: October 27, 2023

You might be wondering what food has to do with your carbon footprint, but the truth is that the food you eat accounts for a quarter of Earth's total greenhouse gas emissions.

How To Cut Your Food Carbon Footprint

You may think these emissions are all about food transport and import, but that is not the case. It does account for some of the carbon footprint generated by food production, but a number of other factors also come into play.

Let's dive into what contributes to the huge carbon footprint of food production and what you can do to reduce your footprint with your food choices.

What Causes The Most Emissions In Food?

The answer will surprise you, contrary to popular belief, the transport involved in food production contributes very little to carbon emissions. For most food products, it totals less than ten per cent of greenhouse gas emissions.

In reality, you have to look at the food production cycle as a whole to see the complete picture of greenhouse gas emissions from food.

how to cut your carbon footprint

A 2018 study looked at all the greenhouse gases produced during food production, from farm to transport and packaging, across 119 countries and found that the maximum number of emissions occur at the farm level.

So, more than eating locally, it is what you are eating that is contributing to or helping reduce your carbon footprint today.

Which Foods Cause The Most Greenhouse Gas Emissions?

The biggest producer of greenhouse gases is beef; producing just one kilogram of beef generates 60 kilograms of greenhouse gases. This is because beef and other meat products use a lot of land and contribute to deforestation, both for holding the animals and to produce feed for them.

Meats also emit a lot of greenhouse gases from farming processes like managing cattle waste disposal, using fertilizers and the methane produced in the cattle's stomachs because of the feed they consume.

The combination of these two factors contributes to more than 80% of the carbon footprint for most foods produced today. In comparison, things like peas emit just one kilogram of greenhouse gases per kilogram of peas produced.

Eating Local Vs Choosing What To Eat

Eating local food will help reduce your carbon footprint, but the debate is how big of an influence that would be. Studies have shown that eating locally reduces only about five per cent of the total greenhouse gas emissions from food for one average American household in a year.

Compared to this, by abstaining from red meat and dairy for one day a week for a year, you would reduce your carbon footprint roughly the same amount. This is assuming you are substituting the red meat with chicken, fish or eggs.

So you could choose to eat locally every day of the year, which would still not completely reduce your carbon footprint from transport unless you live on a farm. Or you could be smarter and have a vegetarian or vegan week every month and reduce your carbon footprint in a much larger amount for less effort.

Can Eating Local Be Harmful To the Environment?

The answer to this depends on where you live because most countries and regions cannot grow the same food all year round. Most food crops have a seasonal growth and harvest period. However, consumer demand for food is present throughout the year.

You might be thinking that at least eating local food would definitely win here, but unfortunately, that is not the case. To grow a crop out of season requires the use of more greenhouse gases and carbon emissions than having them imported from a country where they are growing naturally at the time.

This is partly because most food products we eat are shipped by boat rather than air. Sea routes have the lowest carbon footprint when it comes to transport, and the energy-intensive methods required to grow food that is not in season easily overtakes the sea route’s carbon footprint in size.

Studies showed that the United Kingdom lowered its emissions by three to eight per cent just by importing lettuce from Spain during the winter months rather than trying to grow it locally out-of-season.

So, this is a bit of 50-50 here. The best way to reduce your carbon footprint here is to be aware of what grows in your area in which seasons and, accordingly make the right choices while grocery shopping.

Another way to implement this is to visit local farmers’ markets, where you can find fresh seasonal produce that is locally made and can find out from the farmers directly if the produce is in season or off-season.

Other Things You Can Do

It was mentioned earlier that most foods are not transported by air but rather by sea. However, there are still foods you can look out for and avoid that have been transported by air and have high carbon footprints.

These products are usually the type of food that perishes extremely quickly, and they need to be eaten within a few days of being harvested, like asparagus, green beans and berries.

Unfortunately, food is rarely labelled according to the transport method, but there are a few things you can keep an eye out for.

  • One thing is foods that emphasise freshness and foods that usually do not have ‘ripening time’, like berries that ripen on the plant and need to be plucked only when ready to eat. These foods with a very short shelf life have most likely been transported by air if they are not grown locally in your area.
  • Another thing you can look out for is the country of origin, in combination with the above point. If the country or region of origin is too far to travel within a day or two for the freshness of the product, it has most likely been air freighted to where you are.

We hope this article has given you a lot of clarity on what causes food carbon footprint and a bunch of actionable points on how you can help reduce your food carbon footprint.

Chef and Restaurant Owner Matty Riedel
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