How to reduce your food carbon footprint

The consensus is 22%-30% of our carbon footprint comes from food and drink.  Simple changes in what you eat can make a world of difference to you and the planet’s health.   This short blog gives you all you need to know to make decisions about the food you eat so to make your stomach happy and your mind at peace.

The obvious place to start is what does a normal western person eat?  Well, we’ve done some analysis using UK government data on household purchase and have married them to a wonderful dataset from the largest meta analysis of global food systems to data (published by Joseph Poore and Thomas Nemecek (2018)).  It reveals something quite extraordinary.  The western diet is so skewed toward dairy products that it’s the source of nearly 60% of our carbon emissions!

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Tip 1: Cut out/down on dairy products and replace with basically anything else!

Government data reveals that a quarter of the food we buy is milk, cheese, yogurts, ice cream etc etc.  We consume on average 99kg of dairy products per household!  This massive proportion of our food carbon footprint is then created because dairy products are carbon intensive.

The next big hitters are beef and lamb, luxury products like coffee and chocolate, and then pig/poultry. When thinking about alternatives you want to think about how your protein can be replaced with something more sustainable.  We’ve created a graph below which will help you decide how to make those decisions effectively.

Tip 2: Get your protein prominently from non-meat sources

Our analysis reveals that nothing can beat nuts for protein, according to the study we reviewed the land they are on actually absorbs nearly as much carbon and it takes to transport the food to you.  In terms of climate change it’s a win-win-win.

It’s easy to see what else is low down the list.  Peas and Tofu are also good sources of protein.  Unfortunately we haven’t got stats on lentils or chickpeas but we think they would also be way down there under ‘other pulses’.

What could be taken from this is eggs aren’t too bad and nor is pig/poultry in comparison to beef and lamb.  And note, this is mostly because of methane from cows and sheep flatulence.  But take note – much of this could be controlled if these animals were on a different diet.  If you ate wild meat or pasture fed meat this would make a big difference.  Recent data published by Mike Berners Lee puts lamb produced meat at 21kgCOG/KG and beef at 25kgCO2/KG, which is a big difference simply because of farming practices.

Nonetheless, we all need to cut down on our meat consumption, so eat more protein from non-meat sources!

Tip 3: Prefer potatoes and bread to rice

Farms producing rice emit a lot of carbon as rice farming is done in paddy fields, which produces a lot of methane.  They are trying to fix this at the moment by producing strains for rice that are grown on dry land, but we might be waiting a little while.

Potatoes and bread, and even beer, are excellent alternatives, when combined with vegetables will contribute to reducing your carbon footprint.  So for the chip lovers you are good!

Do note the scale on the below graph – a KG of rice is still 1/5th of the carbon emissions of a KG of cheese!  The difference is we eat a lot of carbohydrates…

Tip 4: Eat more local fruit and veg

This sounds like a health tip right!?  Well, it’s also a tip for how you reduce your carbon footprint from food.

When compared to the carbon emissions of protein, vegetables and fruit just work on a different scale.  The worst offender, tomatoes (because of indoor farming practices mostly), compares well to wheat and rye for bread.  So the key message is don’t worry too much about your choice of fruit and veg – just eat a bigger proportion of fruit and veg.

Tip 5: Choose your food carefully, buy local and without packaging

Choosing in season food reduces energy as there is no need to provide additional heat and light.  Getting food locally also makes a difference.  For some products this can make an incredible difference.  For instance getting beef from deforested land is three times more carbon intensive than getting it from Britain.  This difference of getting local food is often overplayed.  Our analysis reveals transport is 14% of a UK diet.  Importantly packaging is the same proportion.

The key message is buy local and without packaging where possible.  A great way of doing this is to move to a veg box scheme and also grow your own food.

How to get started with your low carbon diet

First things first, change what you buy.  The proportion of food we eat comes from the supermarket.  Beyond the moral dilemma of supermarkets pressing the farmer for low and lower cost, simply buy more veg and think about finding substitutes for dairy milk.  Oat milk is a very good substitute with a number of members of Better Century giving it great applause.

One way of pushing your diet into new bounds is to buy some cookbooks that support that type of eating.  You can also simply make a choice to eat meat only on certain occasions or try out a month of eating just vegetables or vegan food to learn more.  These challenges have also made a difference for our members to make better choices.

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The other thing which you can do is to grow your own vegetables and learn the benefits of having home grown food, or you can buy from veg box delivery company.  Those are sure ways to get you eating more fruit and veg!

Notes on the data

The data source used in this article is from one of the most comprehensive studies published in Science by Joseph Poore and Thomas Nemecek (2018) with much of the data published on World in Data.  The authors looked at data across more than 38,000 commercial farms in 119 countries.  There are also interesting studies in the UK to draw from, Mike Berners Lee has published a set of data on UK food that the BBC has written an article on which may be found here.

To extrapolate what an individual in the UK produces in terms of carbon we have pooled data from data which uses surveys and data from supermarkets to identify buying habits of households.  We have used carbon emission factors of food from World in data and multiplied them against the buying data.  

We accept our data is only as good as our methodology and we remain open to improving our methods.  

If you have any suggestions or views on this blog then please share them through the comments function below and we’ll be sure to respond.  

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